CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Latham affair lifts election temperature
, July 17, 2004
Mark Latham's extraordinary confess-all press conference during which he sought to end a stream of media reports about his past private life, is yet another distraction on the road to the election.
It is also a double-edged sword for the Government, for, while the feverish reporting about actual and non-existent events in Latham's past private life will to some extent impact on the "character question", it also means another couple of weeks during which Latham and not the Government will be at the forefront of the public's attention.Front foot
In typical fashion, Latham decided to go on the front foot and put various rumours out into the public domain himself in a bid to stop his political enemies pedalling misinformation to the media.
Some of the reports, Mr Latham said, were total fabrications, while he was also incensed at questions journalists had been asking about members of his family.
He also lashed out at the Government, claiming the Coalition had set up publicly funded "dirt units" to delve into his private life - a claim categorically denied by Prime Minister John Howard.
Most of the allegations about Mr Latham's past private affairs, even including a messy marriage break-up and even an alleged king-hit of a truck driver (denied by Mr Latham), will be ignored by the public. However, they will not ignore his double standards in being able to dish it out, but apparently not able to be on the receiving end of the nasty side of politics.
That more than any reckless behaviour at a buck's night will be remembered from the episode.
Meanwhile, the Coalition appears to have come to terms with the fact there is likely to be no king hit on Mr Latham himself, and that an early election is all but ruled out.
The coming election is going to be a hand-to-hand combat affair with the result likely to be decided by a handful of seats in different parts of the country.
It may even be decided during the campaign, perhaps not until the last couple of weeks.
Despite the unprecedented airing of the entrails of Mark Latham's private life, Labor is still competitive in the polls, and in a winning position after preferences are divided up. Labor could muck it up by an unfunded tax policy or leaving a giant hole in its costings, but the Government is not banking on it.
Mr Latham could also "blow up" in the heat of the campaign by an angry outburst, but he has maintained strong self discipline in recent weeks and the Government is not counting on self-immolation either.
Mr Latham has proved a frustrating and elusive opponent and Labor itself has learnt a lot of political lessons about campaigning from the pre-eminent politician of the past decade - John Howard himself. On one hand he is brazen and bold, and on the other calm and calculating, choosing when and how the agenda is set.
In the lead-up to the 1996 election, Mr Howard came under enormous pressure to release his policies as the struggling Keating Government too became more and more frustrated.
Kim Beazley tried the "small target strategy" in the lead-up to the 2001, but was caught out when the boats arrived to Australia's north and he appeared to have nothing to match John Howard's tough stance on illegal immigrants.Strategy
Mr Latham is employing "small target strategy II" by holding back on all the important policies: health, tax, education, but keeping media interest in headline-grabbing but largely unimportant side issues.
These include early childhood reading, MPs' superannuation, banning junk food advertising during children's television, closing down ATSIC, and beating up on the banks' high fees and charges and branch closures.
Eventually, though, the focus will turn to the hard issues, certainly in the campaign itself, but possibly sooner in the weeks leading up to the PM's election announcement.
In the end the public will focus on which side of politics has the right set of policies to take the country forward and which leader is better equipped to make the right judgment in difficult times, rather than what they did or didn't get up to in their twenties.