30/03/2004 - 22:00

Echoes of 1972 for Labor

30/03/2004 - 22:00


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REGULAR State Scene readers will know that new Federal Labor leader Mark Latham was treated sympathetically rather than circumspectly in this column on becoming leader.

REGULAR State Scene readers will know that new Federal Labor leader Mark Latham was treated sympathetically rather than circumspectly in this column on becoming leader.

It was argued that, despite his distasteful loutish past, he had an array of pluses that deserved favorable treatment.

Here are several comments about him in that column.

p He speaks of people’s aspirations, self-help, the work ethic, and the need to be fairly rewarded.

p He questions present high taxation levels being endured, especially by middle income earners, the so-called Howard battlers.

p Although a convincing argument could be made that what Mr Latham says on such issues is simply an updated or revamped version of Robert Menzies 1940s ‘forgotten people’ theme, that matters little.

In light of such assessments State Scene isn’t surprised that his electoral standing rose markedly.

Early last month Newspoll showed him trailing Prime Minister John Howard in the “Better prime minister” stakes, 44 per cent to 39 per cent.

By late March the Howard-Latham rankings were 43-42 per cent, neck-and-neck.

A good part of that lift can be attributed to Mr Latham’s manner of seeming to directly speak his mind by highlighting issues such as people being overtaxed and over-generous super schemes for State and Federal MPs.

On top of that he’s deliberately highlighted issues such as parents reading to children that rely on pop psychological theories, matters quite unrelated to national governance but which depict him as a man of compassion and concern.

For the former he deserves commendation, though it should be added that he’s still to show voters precisely what he’d offer in the taxation area should he enter The Lodge.

Unless and until he precisely outlines where we’re likely to see spending cuts – deep ones – and, better still, if we’ll see Canberra removed from costly and ongoing duplication in a huge range of State government-provided services, his talk of tax reform will remain just that – talk.

Mr Latham has also been lucky.

On March 14 the Spanish electorate rejected the ‘coalition of the willing’, which a year earlier had removed Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s major weapon of mass destruction.

It seems Westerners have already forgotten that Hussein and his murderous Tikriti clique were responsible, between 1979 and their scattering and capture last year, for the deaths of 300,000 Iraqis, with 260 mass graves so far discovered.

And nowhere is such forgetfulness more appreciated than among the Western world’s political left, something Mr Latham fully appreciates.

The Coalition’s humanitarian


achievements seem to have so far electorally counted for naught for American President George W Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr Howard, and Spain’s ousted conservative leader Jos Maria Aznar.

In fact the overall outcome may well be quite the opposite across the Western electoral board.

At a Perth politics conference in the midst of the March polling, State Scene met leading Australian psephologist Malcolm Mackerras, who confidently contended Spain’s response was installed for the Howard-led Liberals.

Mr Mackerras argued that President Bush would be defeated by Massachusetts Democratic John Kerry.

 “The war has gone badly for Bush,” he said.

“And that will determine the date that Howard will call his election.

“Howard won’t want to go after Bush is defeated.

“I’d say he’ll prefer to go before Bush; so either October 9 or 16.”

If things transpire thus, Mr Latham’s decision to distance himself from Iraq’s liberation by calling Mr Howard an “arse licker” will favour Labor as it did Spain’s socialist leader, Jose Luis Rodriques Zapatero, whose language was no doubt more subdued.

On balance the Madrid bombings must be seen as having assisted Mr Latham.

The fact that Mr Howard also found himself in an imbroglio with Australia’s Federal Police chief over Madrid’s bombings only further helped Labor.

Perhaps he should be told that police men and women, despite occasional reports of police force corruption, rate far more highly with citizens in polls than do politicians.

Little wonder Mr Latham is now gambling ever more on Iraq’s liberation by foreshadowing the withdrawal of Australia’s 850 military and technical personnel by Christmas should he win office.

That has understandably led some Labor loyalists to see similarities between the still talked about, among themselves at least, ‘It’s Time’ campaign of 1972, where Gough Whitlam extracted Labor from 23 years in opposition.

Whitlam, in the lead-up to the 1972 election, foreshadowed that Labor would withdraw Australian military personnel from South Vietnam, which was conquered by North Vietnam three years later.

Like Mr Latham now, Mr Whitlam’s electoral standing rose quite dramatically over that of his predecessor, the late Arthur Calwell.

But there’s another factor.

Mr Latham, on graduating from university, worked as a research officer for Gough Whitlam, then a retired prime minister.

That was followed by a stint as a staffer for another Labor leader, Paul Keating, who always lauded Mr Whitlam.

Both men’s combative style appears to have deeply impress-ed Mark Latham, to the point where they have become role models.

Though it would be premature to argue that a Latham-led government would simply be a cocktail of Whitlamism and Keatingism, that cannot be discounted.

If that’s to be, Mr Latham’s party colleagues should remind him of the ignominious demise of his two Sydney heroes – Mr Whiltam losing in landslides in 1975 and 1977 and Mr Keating in a near landslide in 1996.



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