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Beazley, Kim Edward (1917–2007)

by John Farquharson

When Kim Beazley entered Federal Parliament in 1945 at the age of 27, he was hailed as a politician to watch, possibly a future Labor leader.

Beazley, who died in Perth on Friday aged 90, was certainly seen as one of the ALP's bright young hopefuls when he won the Western Australian seat of Fremantle after the death of war-time prime minister John Curtin. When he took his place in Parliament, he was the youngest member and, in those early earnest years in Canberra, he was dubbed "the student prince" or "young Lochinvar".

It was not until 1972, with the advent of the Whitlam government, that he got his chance in the ministry with the education portfolio. Having a strong background in education, as a school teacher and university tutor, he applied himself assiduously to his new task, making a significant impact on education in Australia.

He successfully implemented Labor's radical program providing for free tertiary education. Significantly, one of Beazley's first initiatives was to arrange for Aboriginal children to be taught in schools in their own language, with English as a second language. (Beazley was also one of the pioneer fighters for Aboriginal land rights in the early 1950s.)

Throughout much of his parliamentary career, Beazley was often regarded as the conscience of the ALP. Certainly he earned the respect of both colleagues and opponents as a man of integrity.

Yet for some time in the 1950s, after Beazley reached a profound turning point in his career in 1953, serious doubts were raised in some ALP quarters of his ability to survive in politics. This arose from his connection with Moral Re-Armament and his declaration that he had made a decision "to concern myself daily with the challenge of how to live out God's will and to turn the searchlight of absolute honesty on to my motives".

The ramifications were soon felt, with one political columnist writing that "no one with even a slight working knowledge of politics could fail to delight in the confusion that could result from even one of our politicians resolving to be absolutely honest".

Many Labor adherents were in fact quite disturbed. The late Alan Reid, doyen of political correspondents at the time, reported that Beazley was facing political destruction. But Beazley went on to become one of Parliament's longest serving members, having served 32 years in the House of Representatives when he retired in 1977.

Beazley's background was country working class. His father was a storeman in Northam, north-east of Perth, his mother a teacher with strong religious convictions. But he knew poverty as a child and remembered having to attend school with no shoes to wear. Before going on to university, his secondary education was at Perth Modern School, which also produced such figures as Sir Paul Hasluck, Dr H. C. "Nugget" Coombs, Bob Hawke and John Stone.

In 1948, he married the noted Australian athlete Betty Judge. She held the Australian 880-yard record from 1940 to 1951. They had two sons and a daughter. The eldest son, Kim Jr, followed his father into federal politics.

Beazley's association with Moral Re-Armament, added to a certain scholarly aloofness, tended to invest him with the mantle of a loner. However, he gave greatly to the ALP and was respected as one of the party's thinkers.

At the Adelaide ALP conference in 1951 he wrote the preamble to the party's national platform and constitution. He served on the national executive as well as the state executive in Western Australia. From 1969 to 1971 he was senior vice-president of the ALP.

So far as parliamentary performance was concerned, Beazley was regarded as one of the best orators and most decisive debaters in the House. Some of his remarks have passed into folklore, such as when he accused the National Party (Country Party as it then was) of "socialising their losses and capitalising their profits".

He was also prepared to speak out against his own party if he believed it stood in need of correction and once accused both colleagues and opposition members of "selective indignation" and "capricious morality" over the Vietnam War.

On another occasion, he stung the left-wing Victorian ALP executive when he referred to their "Midas touch of failure".

Why did Beazley fail to realise his great early potential? The answer almost certainly lies in the political game and the way it is played. Intellectual brilliance, debating skill and high moral integrity doesn't necessarily put runs on the board.

Another feature of politics that probably told against Beazley was that men of principle do not so readily reap the highest prizes.

It was on a matter of principle that Beazley resigned from the Labor shadow cabinet as spokesman on education and defence in March 1976 after Gough Whitlam's condemnation by the ALP National Executive for his role in the Iraqi funds affair.

He said at the time, he was satisfied that he would never know the truth about the Iraqi funds proposal and could not be collectively responsible for what he did not know. Nor could he explain it to the public.

Beazley may not have been as successful as he could have been, but upon his retirement he could hardly have been more respected. Then speaker Sir Billy Snedden, of the opposition, paid tribute to him as a "fine parliamentarian and a great Australian".

Beazley was a rarity among politicians; he was not overly concerned about his own popularity. He saw there was choice involved. "If you do not accept the importance of conscience, you accept only the importance of power," he once said. He contributed much, in government and opposition, to bringing progress and healing to some of the great issues facing Australia.

He is survived by his wife Betty, son Kim Jr and daughter Merrylyn. A second son, David, predeceased him.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 14 October 2007
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2007
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 October 2007

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Beazley, Kim Edward (1917–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 October 2016.

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