20/01/2004 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Latham breaks the mould

20/01/2004 - 21:00


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AS it has been two months since Labor’s factional chiefs moved to replace Simon Crean as leader, it’s worth asking whether the change has significantly altered Australia’s political landscape.

AS it has been two months since Labor’s factional chiefs moved to replace Simon Crean as leader, it’s worth asking whether the change has significantly altered Australia’s political landscape.

The turnaround means the major parties are now led by those who’ll take them into November’s Federal election – the Liberals by John Howard, much to pretender Peter Costello’s regret, and Labor by Mark Latham, to big tax and big spending challenger Kim Beazley’s regret.

The same applies to three of the minors – the Nationals by John Anderson; the Greens by Bob Brown; and even the Democrats, despite a late night raid on a Liberal wine cache, by Andrew Bartlett.

Only Australia’s newest minor, One Nation, with its unlikely founder recently released from jail, still experiences leadership uncertainties.

Although rightist populist Pauline Hanson has just launched a PR business, re-entry into politics remains a possibility, particularly if she finds PR as boring as she found the fish ’n chips game.

By opting for Canberra – this time as senator – she’d have the potential to “keep the bastards honest”, something Senator Bartlett forsook with his late night wine-hunting foray.

Interestingly, that could help Labor, because it would mean a significant diversion of primary conservative votes from their candidates in key – perhaps crucial – House of Representatives seats.

A quirk of elections since One Nation’s emergence on to the political scene is that left-of-centre Labor has benefited, as happened at the last Queensland and WA State contests.

Both times Liberals and Nationals lost primary votes to Hansonites, after which significant numbers of One Nation preferences leaked away from Liberals and Nationals.

So, as long as the Hanson threat remains, Howard-led conservatives will highlight policies and symbols that backers of Brown-led Greens and Carmen Lawrence-oriented Laborites will despise.

The best example of this was the so-called Tampa Affair, which, despite the objections of Brown and Lawrence-type backers, gained and retains overwhelming nationwide backing.

November’s election will also be the first clash since 1993 – when Paul Keating faced John Hewson – where the leaders of both major parties come from Sydney.

That’s hardly surprising since NSW has a third of the House of Reps members, a whopping 50, meaning its Canberra contingent exceeds by two combined MPs from Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, ACT and the Northern Territory, with most hailing from the Sydney metropolis.

For this Mr Latham can thank Simon Crean, since it was he who hoodwinked his predecessor, Kim Beazley, into launching his premature 2003 challenge. Instead of sitting tight, Mr Beazley launched a hasty, unplanned, and thus unsuccessful, challenge that Mr Latham so shrewdly capitalised upon.

Mr Latham, a NSW rightist, had quietly moved to ensure members of Labor’s sizeable leftist faction preferred him to fellow rightist Mr Beazley.

He ensured most caucus leftists backed him by making several carefully considered insulting and loutish remarks about US President George W Bush and Australia’s longtime ally, the US.

Then, after winning by the narrowist of margins, he reneged on his public anti-Americanism by pronouncing he fully backed the Australia-US alliance.

Zip out of 10 for sincerity, 100 per cent for cunning.

He next appointed Robert McClelland to oversee ‘homeland security’, thereby electorally aligning Labor with popular Howard counter-terrorist policies.

What this shows is that while Messrs Howard and Anderson are keeping an eye on the Hansonites, Mr Latham is watching Messrs Howard and Anderson.

But it would be wrong to see this eyeing-off as the sum total of the lead-up to November’s election.

Mr Latham is different.

For starters he’s the first Labor leader to single mindedly and unambiguously highlight and sympathetically treat people’s desire for personal and family betterment and the government’s role in ensuring it.

More than a century of Labor MPs – thousands of them – have wined and dined on repeating ad nauseum their alleged concern (their favourite word) for the unemployed, underprivileged, needy and the allegedly discriminated against.

Not so Mr Latham.

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

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

This more than anything represents a turnaround for Labor for it means that at long last the language used by Labor MPs for more than a century is likely to change to confront the reality of individual Australians seeking to improve themselves materially, and otherwise.

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.

Liberal MPs no longer speak so.

Most seem to have forgotten the forgotten people.

Under John Howard taxes are higher than ever.

Like Mr Latham or not – and there’s much about him that’s most distasteful – he’s a different type of Labor leader, one who’s shown he’s prepared to break with Labor’s sanctimonious proclivities by no longer mouthing hackneyed and patronising cliches, and by seeing solutions in boosting taxes and spending.

When a Labor leader is prepared to discard generations of overused cliches and move to commandeer the best of Australia’s once responsive conservative camp, one can only conclude things have markedly changed, and for the better.

Whether Latham-led Labor wins in November is to be seen.

But the least we can say is Labor is on the road to being fundamentally reformed for the better.

Win or lose, let’s hope Mr Latham’s efforts aren’t a false start.


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