CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Utter failure of the Latham experiment
, December 18, 2004
It has become apparent to all but a dwindling band of federal Labor MPs that the Latham experiment was an utter failure.
Inexperience, a mass of contradictions and unpredictable behaviour and a seeming total inability to learn from past mistakes or even to acknowledge them, has led the Latham road trip down a dead end.
The intervention of one of the architects of the Crean coup, Bob McMullan, must surely spell the end of his leadership some time in the New Year. Mr McMullan has been accused of conducting a "dummy spit" and of lashing out at Mr Latham because he was not given the foreign affairs role he had hoped for.
But Mr McMullan's intervention is quite significant because he is not only a former national secretary, he has no leadership ambitions of his own, and is well-known for his dispassionate analysis of politics.Old guard finished
Furthermore, when Mr Latham defeated Kim Beazley for the leadership late last year, Mr McMullan declared to colleagues that the old guard from the Hawke-Keating era was finally finished, and that there could never be a turning back to Mr Beazley.
The Latham episode has been so damaging, Mr McMullan is now no longer sure of that view.
Labor's roller-coaster ride with Mr Latham has been full of ironies.
Mr Latham's surprise elevation to the leadership happened in large part because Simon Crean's most loyal supporters - including a substantial portion of MPs from the left - wanted to wreak revenge on those who had undermined the former leader.
It was a reckless and desperate move by the Labor Party to turn away from a safe, experienced and known leader in Mr Beazley and to run instead with a very young, political mystery-man who had a history of erratic conduct.
But, having cast the dice, it appeared to pay off for many months with the public showing at least serious curiosity about Mr Latham, the plain-speaking maverick from Western Sydney.
He responded in kind with popular "anti-politician'' proposals such as cutting MPs' superannuation perks and abolishing ATSIC.
And he was the first Labor politician in memory who actually wanted to do something about the hundreds of thousands of Australia's welfare-poor underclass.
Former rock-solid Beazley supporters such as Queenslander Con Sciacca (who unfortunately lost his seat in the October election debacle) declared they had been wrong to doubt Mr Latham's abilities and enthusiastically endorsed the new leader.
And Mr Latham's strongest suit was that he embodied everything that was missing from modern Labor: he was in the mould of Ben Chifley - genuine working-class made good, embodying old-fashioned Labor values like support for family, hard work, and a serious attitude to education.
But there were also hints of Mr Latham's personality shortcomings - his disdain or at least misunderstanding of Christianity, which is still embraced in one form or another by the majority of Australians.
Then the Latham schools-policy came in - clearly the first instalment of a Labor approach to private schooling which would have whittled away state aid to independent, mainly religious, schools.
There were other blunders too which sowed the seeds of doubt in people's minds, such as the promise to withdraw the troops from Iraq by Christmas.
The left loved all this rhetoric of course, but it was a further indication that Mr Latham was indeed a champion of old-fashioned class warfare and even sectarianism.Betrayal
Mr Latham might have done reasonably well in the election, even pulling off a respectable loss, but he betrayed everything he appeared to believe in, and his own working-class credibility, when he decided to turn his back on the Tasmanian forest-workers.
That decision sealed his fate.
And yet Mr Latham seems unable to comprehend his own contribution to Labor's debacle.
Typically, Mr Latham's strongest support comes from left-wing MPs luxuriating in safe city-seats who never have to worry about the views of middle Australia or how to convince swinging voters to try their hand at voting Labor.
Mr Latham was brought in too soon, and was ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of being a future Prime Minister, and the blame must be shared in part by his Howard-despising sponsors who helped orchestrate his elevation, but who should have known better - Paul Keating and Laurie Brereton.