“Isn’t it time we all moved on? Whether it’s the faces of a decade ago in the so-called Keating piggery affair, or Labor’s celebrations of past leaders, some of it worthy fundraising but all inevitably bringing on a media overdose of Whitlam, Keating, Hawke, even Hayden. No sightings of New Labor’s bright young MPs. No wonder the electorate is alienated.

On the eve of the Aston by-election, Labor stalwarts and paying guests lined up to cheer ageing star Gough Whitlam at his 85th birthday “roast”. Great fundraiser. But Aston went to Liberal Chris Pearce. Swinging voters didn’t need reminding of Labor’s past. That’s why they voted John Howard in.

The Whitlam roast is only the latest in Labor icon celebrations over recent years, all of which end in records of familiar faces, in photos among the newspaper clippings and video archives. In May 2001, Gough, Bill, Bob, Paul and Kim were grouped at the launch of Labor’s record of 100 years, True Believers (Allen & Unwin), smiling for the cameras.

It rouses the emotion of the party faithful and gives them a feeling that Labor is back on a winning streak. But, up against a wily and competitive Coalition with John Howard, it’s hardly a catchy image for New Labor. At the True Believers launch, the images sent across the nation were smug and ageing. A party in the hands of a team of blokes with an average age of 66.

New Labor, as Kim Beazley’s team likes to style itself, does indeed have a crop of bright, young, able MPs. But you wouldn’t think it from the publicity shots. Take the launch of Knowledge Nation, designed to track Australia into the new-age technologies and stem our brain drain.

Knowledge Nation captured the headlines for a couple of days and was beamed into homes on the nightly news. Just a few seconds is all you get for the pictures to leave a message. So, forget the Barry Jones attempt at a flow chart and think of who was on the stage. That image of Labor gained from television and the newspapers. Not a woman could be seen. Just another row of blokes, three politicians and two professors, most over 50. And this from a party with more women MPs in its ranks than the Government – younger women with university degrees. A party where, across the nation, 30 per cent of its MPs are female.

True, there’s a pecking order, and Labor blokes aren’t renowned for standing back from a chance to take the microphone or grab the jobs. But there’s more to a party than stratification. Surely the choreographers for the election of Labor in 2001 can do better than such one-dimensional and out-dated political line-ups.

Apparently not. Celebrations like a Whitlam roast or a Labor book launch invariably include a long list of speakers and MCs. But, except for a song here and there, don’t expect to hear from a woman.

At the Gough Whitlam tribute dinner in May 1999, with the exception of Little Pattie (bless her) who sang the national anthem, the microphone voices were of 16 men. At the launch of Peter FitzSimons’s biography of Kim Beazley in July 1998, Gough Whitlam was followed by Paul Keating, Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke.

For publishers, there’s no harm in getting former Labor prime ministers to launch books. Especially Whitlam. Put him on the cover and it sells. But getting book sales is not the same as winning swinging voters, who want to know what New Labor will do, who it is and what it looks like.

Undoubtedly, a lot of issues affected Aston’s outcome. It’s not a seat Labor will need to win in the coming Federal election to take office – more marginal seats are numerous. Middle Melbourne and Sydney are not hurting quite like regional Australia, and so on.

Yet it is also argued that Beazley has not captured the electorate, is too reliant on a souring of support for Howard rather than any positive embrace by swinging voters. So, if he is seriously interested in winning over the uncommitted at the 2001 election, it’s time to junk pictures of himself flanked by the ageing blokey faces of past Labor governments.”

Article published in The Canberra Times