Simon Crean was the first federal Labor leader not allowed to contest an election at all. Yet, he never carried the scars of his removal, writes MARK KENNY.
ON reflection, Simon Crean was probably the first domino to fall in a certain madness that seized Labor during the Howard era and presaged a decade of turmoil that only settled down under Bill Shorten’s leadership (2013-19).
Crean, who died suddenly over the weekend while travelling in Europe, was known for his hard work, moral clarity and even temperament.
He had been one of very few people to go straight into the cabinet upon his election in 1990 and he was regarded as a skilled practitioner.
So withering were his critiques of the Coalition that he was sometimes described as a Labor “attack dog”, particularly once he was elected deputy Labor leader from 1998. In 2001, he was elected unopposed as Labor’s parliamentary leader.
Turmoil within Labor
But in 2003, the former unionist’s work-a-day presentation was seen by critics in the caucus and the parliamentary press gallery as too negative in tone and unlikely to force the unfashionable prime minister, John Howard, from the Lodge in 2004.
Panicking Labor MPs connived to restore the twice-rejected Kim Beazley to the Labor leadership. Yet, it was the young and vituperative Mark Latham – these days representing One Nation in the NSW upper house – who emerged victorious.
Latham’s mercurial stewardship of Labor proved to be a disaster, delivering the Howard-led Coalition a thumping win in 2004, replete with control of both houses.
Further humiliated, Labor then switched back to Beazley, who had already lost to Howard in 1998 and 2001, and would face a leadership challenge himself in December 2006. Labor then won the next election in 2007 with Kevin Rudd at the helm and Julia Gillard as deputy leader.
Beazley may have been denied a third crack at the prize, but Crean had become the first federal Labor leader not allowed to contest an election at all.
It established a destructive pattern. Rudd would become the first Labor prime minister to be cut down before a shot at re-election, and Gillard, who had replaced him as PM, would suffer the same indignity.
Gripped by factional conflict and frustrated by Howard’s electoral success, Labor had forgotten its formula for stability under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It succumbed instead to intrigue and self-referentialism.
Crean’s ousting as party leader in 2003 was a sign of the madness to come.
A moral stand on Iraq
Yet during his truncated opposition stint from 2001-03, Crean took what was arguably the riskiest and most courageous stance since Gough Whitlam committed Labor to recognise “Red” China in 1971 and Herbert “Doc” Evatt opposed not only the Menzies government’s Communist Party Dissolution Bill, but personally led the High Court challenge to its constitutionality.
Crean’s decision to oppose Australia’s participation in the US-led “coalition of the willing” invasion of Iraq is now seen as correct. The war was based on falsified and misinterpreted intelligence and probably led to a worsening of Australia’s national security conditions.
Crean made a point of visiting Australian troops leaving for the war, telling them they had the Opposition’s complete support, even though the war itself was wrong.
Just as Evatt and Whitlam had risked being tagged as “soft” on Communism, Crean risked being viewed as weak on terrorism by his detractors in the Howard government, the media and even some within his own party.
An engaged post-parliamentary life
A true believer in the Australian Labor Party and in the labour movement, Crean, like Beazley, was Labor royalty. Both men had been around parliament as children. Their fathers, Frank Crean and Kim Beazley Sr., had been frontbenchers and eventually ministers in the Whitlam Labor governments of 1972-75.
That pedigree may explain his commitment to remain in parliament as the member for the Melbourne seat of Hotham, becoming the only minister to serve in the cabinets of the Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard governments.
His post-parliamentary life involved ongoing representation of Australia’s interests abroad, primarily as chair of the European Australian Business Council.
Crean remained deeply engaged in the issues facing the world, and fiercely committed to the protection of working people and the vulnerable.
In my own dealings with him as a minister and on occasions since, he was unfailingly polite, generous with his time and good-humoured.
Where other ex-leaders carried the scars of their removals, Crean exuded a kind of upbeat forward focus. His tendency was always to the analytical.
I remember meeting him for a drink in Brussels in 2018, where the main subject was the ongoing debacle of Brexit, at that stage nowhere near its final form.
Crean was across every detail, simultaneously mystified by the political basis of such an egregious act of national self-harm on the part of the UK, yet also fascinated by its underlying socio-economic wellsprings.
‘History will treat Simon well’
His sudden death at just 74 has shocked his party and his country, of which he was an energetic and relentless advocate.
It is a mark of that service and the civility he exhibited so effortlessly that Opposition leader Peter Dutton genuinely mourned his loss.
“Simon was a gentleman to deal with and a giant of the labour movement. I always admired Simon for his decency and intellect and only just saw him recently in Melbourne,” the current Liberal leader remarked.
Perhaps the last word, though, should go to Keating, who served with Crean in the Hawke cabinet and was his prime minister, too.
Keating told me that Crean had been an “honourable participant in the game of politics, eschewing internecine cabals and trickiness. He was straight up and down, always looking beyond factional games for positive policy advances”.
History will treat Simon well. Particularly, under pressure, as leader of the parliamentary Labor Party in refusing to join John Howard in his commitment of Australian military forces to the criminal Western attack upon Iraq.
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