By Michael Gordon
The pep talk came from a man well-qualified to reflect on how hard it is to win national elections, having borne the weight of expectations and almost prevailed not once, but twice. Bill Shorten called him "the best prime minister Australia never had".
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Compensation would need to be considered for some Australians before any decisions are made about tax changes, including a GST hike according to Malcolm Turnbull.
Kim Beazley was the surprise guest speaker when Labor MPs and their staff gathered at the National Press Club on Wednesday for their annual dinner to mark the start of the political year.
After stepping off a plane from Washington earlier in the day, the just-retired ambassador to the United States delivered an address that deeply moved many in the room, especially those who were not on the scene when he led Labor to honourable defeats in 1998 and 2001.
What struck many was the guilt and regret the big man they call "Bomber" still carries from those losses, like an AFL player who has played in two grand finals but retired without ever holding aloft the premiership cup.
As Beazley expressed it, it wasn't the foregone personal glory that gnawed away at him, but the fact that the losses kept the Howard government in power, leaving Labor powerless to watch changes being introduced that could not be easily undone.
His point was that the current Labor crop had to believe they could win, and do everything within their power to achieve that end, or they, too, will be burdened by the pain of opportunities lost.
This was also the message from Shorten, who offered Beazley absolution and declared that no one had served the Labor Party with more decency than him. Acknowledging Malcolm Turnbull's ascendancy, the Labor leader told the audience: "None of us have the right to give up."
Those convinced that Labor needed a two-term strategy to regain government, he said, were betraying the millions of voters who were depending on them.
From all accounts, it was a morale-boosting occasion, underscoring an unusual phenomenon at the start of this election year: the mob on the ropes is exhibiting more unity, esprit de corps and sense of purpose than the crowd that is universally considered a shoo-in to be returned later this year.
The reasons for this are simple enough: having promised the economic leadership that Tony Abbott failed to deliver, Turnbull is still overseeing a national debate about tax reform, but yet to signal his preference for what form it should take.
As one Coalition backbencher was quoted as saying, it is like entering the boxing ring with one hand tied behind your back. And, as Shorten reminds us, it has been going for more than 140 days.
The mob on the ropes is exhibiting more unity, esprit de corps and sense of purpose than the crowd that is universally considered a shoo-in.
While outsiders such as Mike Baird and Jay Weatherill continue to make credible proposals, and federal Labor warns of the consequences of a 50 per cent hike in the GST, the message from the federal Coalition is that everything, more or less, is still on the table.
If Coalition backbenchers were nervous before Parliament resumed, their anxiety would have been increased a few more notches at the intervention of another former Labor leader, Paul Keating, just as Treasurer Scott Morrison was giving the firmest indication yet that he is committed to the higher GST path.
Warning that increasing the GST to 15 per cent would only lead the political system into continuing its bad spending habit, Keating declared: "If you give a dog a bone, they'll bury it. If you give the political system $35 billion, they'll spend it."
It was Victorian Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent who first alerted his colleagues to the risks of continuing down the GST increase path. Early in December he told the Coalition party room that he had only been in two GST elections, and lost his seat both times. He wasn't so much throwing a grenade as planting a seed of doubt.
Those doubts are now shared by a very large slab of the Coalition party room, prompting Turnbull to address some of the concerns head-on in the Parliament this week and assert that any changes will drive growth and jobs and be fair, with the complexity of changes outweighed by the productivity gains they will deliver.
While Turnbull exudes measured confidence that the process will produce a package that is capable of being explained and supported, the take-out of the week was summed up by one Liberal who told me: "It will be very hard for Morrison to get a 15 per cent GST up now."
This week, as the High Court upheld the legality of Australia's policy of consigning asylum seekers who came by boat to indefinite limbo on Nauru and Manus Island, Broadbent attempted to plant another seed.
Essentially, he is backing the suggestion of academic Robert Manne to break the impasse in what I suspect is the most toxic public policy debate this country has ever confronted.
On one side are those who believe the end justifies the means and insist that any hint of compassion or compromise in the way Australia treats boat arrivals will encourage the people smugglers to push harder and result in the deaths at sea resuming.
On the other are those utterly dismayed that a policy could be embraced that continues to inflict mounting damage on vulnerable people, even when that damage is done to children and revealed and quantified by clinicians who face jail terms for speaking out. If the ranks of the dismayed were not increased by seeing the faces of the babies who face being sent to Nauru, the intensity of their revulsion at the policy was.
The Broadbent idea is to say and do nothing in response to the decision that enables the Commonwealth to return more than 220 asylum seekers, including about 50 children, to Nauru, along with the 37 babies born in Australia.
Broadbent would also like to see those who have been damaged by their indefinite detention on the remote islands quietly brought to Australia, with the main pillars of Australia's policy remaining in place to deter further arrivals – offshore processing in foreign countries and boat turn-backs to Indonesia.
The weakness of this approach, in the unlikely event that it was adopted, is that relief would come too slowly for many of the more than 900 men in custody on Manus and more than 1200 men, women and children on Nauru who are already at breaking point.
One way forward, perhaps the only way forward, is detente between the parties and some serious discussion about how we achieve the twin objectives of ending the misery of the Nauru and Manus caseloads and minimising the risk of boat ventures.
Wouldn't it be uplifting if Turnbull and Shorten chose to lead it?
Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.