17/08/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Taming Labor’s wild boar

17/08/2004 - 22:00


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Political scientists have expended tens of thousands of hours over many decades researching why people vote in particular ways.

Political scientists have expended tens of thousands of hours over many decades researching why people vote in particular ways.

They’ve considered issues such as class, income differences between voters, religious orientation, and a vast array of other likely and unlikely factors that may or may not influence voters when they put pen to paper in polling booths.

With Prime Minister John Howard set to announce the date of the coming Federal election in the next month or so, it’s worth considering what some may have overlooked as a likely underlying voter concern for this, his fifth such contest.

And that is the personality or what comes across as the road rage-style temperament of Labor leader Mark Latham.

Since Mr Latham’s elevation to that position last December, State Scene has quizzed many people on his selection and it’s clear even some who are well disposed towards Labor have their doubts.

True, immediately after narrowly pipping senior WA Labor figure Kim Beazley, Mr Latham publicly stated he’d no longer resort to crudities in pronouncements and comments.

And straight after taking up the position he experienced what was a welcomed boost in the polls, which seemed to vindicate caucus’s choice.

But one wonders why someone who’d been in parliament for nearly a decade needed to consciously curb his ranting and crude insults.

There are various ways of considering this quizzical question.

Despite Mr Latham’s reliance on Labor’s powerful leftist faction to gain the leadership, he belongs to the New South Wales right, so hails from a coterie that’s included such luminaries a Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, and Graham Richardson.

It’s no secret that Mr Whitlam, who entered parliament in 1952, and therefore witnessed more than a decade of Menzies’ prime ministership, was deeply taken by that Liberal leader’s witty and sardonic comments.

Menzies was at his best with such remarks in impromptu situations.

One that readily comes to mind was when an interjector at a rally yelled: “What a ya gunna do about ’ousing?”

To which Menzies promptly replied: “Put an ‘h’ in front of it, sir.”

Whitlam, like so many, saw that Australians appreciated such retorts and politicians from all sides attempted to emulate Menzies, with very few, including Whitlam, doing so successfully.

But that never dissuaded Whitlam from trying, so he slightly amended his approach by opting instead for prepared and well-rehearsed funny one liners.

One that readily comes to mind was his description of Liberal leader William McMahon, a known plotter who generally did so on the telephone.

Whitlam subsequently described him as: “The Tiberius of the telephone”.

Funny, true, but well short of the impromptu Menzies.

Whitlam was no Menzies.

That’s further shown by the fact that Whitlam so often resorted to putting down opponents with quite venomous, rather than witty, remarks.

But, just as Menzies had had an impact on Whitlam, so Whitlam has had an impact on others within Labor ranks.

And soon along came Paul Keating, who as PM invariably sought to be a memorable quipper.

But his standards slipped further with public dubbings of opponents such as “scumbags” and “unrepresentative swill” just two examples.

It’s noteworthy that Mr Latham is a former Whitlam and a former Keating staffer.

And there’s little doubt he was deeply impressed by both, most especially their proclivity to publicly criticise opponents in as offensive way as possible.

Two Lathamisms that readily come to mind are: “Conga-line of suck holes”, and “arse lickers”.

Now, it would be incorrect to assume that Mr Keating sees this as a slide in standards.

 Quite the contrary. He recently defended his contribution to this decline by claiming: “People like the wild boar, not the processed ham”.

At least Mr Latham belatedly appears to have realised otherwise – that Australian voters expect something more from those who seek to represent them, most especially on the international stage.

Clearly, then, what began as wit and sardonic remarks aimed at opponents by Menzies more than three decades ago has slumped not merely to unparliamentary language but quite uncouth and vulgar expressions, one’s that even Mr Latham felt compelled to say he’d no longer resort to as Labor leader.

The question to ask, however, is, is this too late?

Has Latham irreparably damaged himself in the eyes of voters?

Irrespective of what political scientists may contend, State Scene believes he definitely has.

And it appears there is concern over this issue at Labor’s most senior ranks, something just one journalist, The Australian’s, Glen Milne, has noted.

Milne pointed out in a recent column that: “Paul Keating is playing a leading behind-the-scene role in tutoring Latham”, which, among other things, suggest Latham may be wanting two bob each way.

These clandestine manoeuvres prompted Milne to reveal that a group within Labor’s upper echelons, including, Mr Beazley, Queenslander Wayne Swan, Western Australian Stephen Smith, and former Western Australian Bob McMullan are seeking to “calm Latham down”.

And that’s resulted in what Milne described as “a struggle for his [Latham’s] soul between the Keating-Whitlam forces that want him let loose on the electorate, raw, and the party professionals who believe, unchecked, he’s in danger of running off the rails.”

State Scene suspects enough voters nationwide have perceived the struggle for “Latham’s soul” and that his 10 years of copying the “Keating-Whitlam” example, until publicly stating last December that he’d drop it, will be the difference between him becoming Australia’s next Prime Minister and remaining Labor leader with strong leftist backing.

If proven incorrect, however, and Mark Latham comes to occupy The Lodge we can be sure the Keating-Whitlam forces won’t be dissuaded from attempting to ensure he returns to being “a wild boar”.

That, no doubt, is something else many voters realise and would be concerned about, so it will influence how they mark their ballots.


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