CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Budget - next test for Federal Government
, April 24, 2004
Mark Latham is occasionally lampooned by his conservative opponents as the new Gough Whitlam - his mentor, father figure and first boss. It is a superficial comparison, but a kind of comfort as well, because the "crash through or crash" strategy adopted by Whitlam contains an expectation of a built-in short and sharp life cycle.
Among Coalition MPs in particular, Whitlam is synonymous with failure, the worst government in Australian history, and the exact model of how a Prime Minister should not
run the country.
Putting aside the fact that Whitlam's legacies such as the Family Law Act and pervasive federal bureaucracy have, regrettably, had enormous influence, Latham critics would be wise to look closer at how the new Labor leader operates.Scenario
It is assumed by Latham opponents that even if, in a worst case scenario, he were to become Prime Minister he would make a mess of it, and that the Coalition would be returned soon after.
This is why the Government's heavy hitters like to portray Latham as erratic, volatile, dangerous, unreliable and too inexperienced for office.
Unfortunately for them, Latham is a more complex and capable politician than the Coalition thinks, and its key strategists are doing themselves a continuing disservice by underestimating both him and Labor's fierce determination to get off the Opposition benches.
Latham is nothing if not a quick learner, and in many ways is uniquely suited to the fast-moving nature of modern post-Cold War politics, where ideology is no longer the bedrock of the different sides of the political divide.
He is able to sift and test ideas, drop policies which are not working, and steal policies of merit from the other side without any qualms.
It may be true that Latham might have a bit of Whitlam in him, but he also has a bit of Pauline Hanson, a bit of Paul Keating, and a bit of John Howard as well.
For example, the Labor Party's recent extraordinary decision to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was straight out of Pauline Hanson's populist manual. When Ms Hanson first raised the idea, it was condemned by Aboriginal groups and others as racist and regressive.
But no one bats an eyelid when Latham pre-empted John Howard and called for the organisation to be disbanded.
Latham's success in tackling MPs' super was also typical of the Hanson "anti-politician". By portraying himself as different, someone who is somehow almost against the system of protecting the privileged, as someone who can speak plainly and frankly, Latham is able to make himself stand out from the rest. And in a world where people appear to be cynical and turned off by political games, these symbolic actions do cut through.
Latham is also adopting an "Australia First" foreign policy which will have widespread appeal in the Hanson heartland, and among the left for that matter as well.
It is a clever policy because it claims independence, but is also a deliberate resumption of the Keating approach of engagement with Asia at the expense of traditional allies.
Under a Latham Labor Government not only would the troops be home from Iraq soon after winning office, there would no longer be any kowtowing to the USA.
Somehow, the US alliance would also be steadfastly maintained while Australia's defences would cease to be an integrated part of the United States' strategic plans on standby to mobilise to any part of the world the US has to police or secure.
This is a populist foreign policy which will have deep resonance with wide sections of the Australian people.
Had it not been for September 11 John Howard could have easily drafted a similar document, albeit without the anti-American overtones. There is a big appeal in the idea of "Fortress Australia" - John Howard won the last election with this exact same policy.
The Howard Government has been forced to dig in for possibly another year in Iraq and is clearly now as worried about the situation as the Bush Administration.
"I didn't think it would be as bad as this," an unusually frank Defence Minister Robert Hill said recently. "I knew it would be difficult and it was obviously impossible to predict how it would work out, but I thought that by now there would be an Iraqi leadership coming forward and Iraqi people taking greater control over a destiny that would have been a better destiny for themselves."
Being in government, particularly over a long period of time, becomes an increasingly complex exercise where difficult decisions hurt you, and voters become alienated.
Despite his inexperience and unpredictability Latham is continuing to prove a difficult opponent for the Coalition. No one has hit the panic buttons yet, but if the Budget is not successful, Coalition MPs in marginal seats might be dusting off their job resumés.