CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Latham in denial over election loss
, November 20, 2004
The Labor Party appears to be falling into the cycle of many parties languishing in long-term opposition - it is spending its energies fighting the last election campaign rather than the next one.
Worse still, under the leadership of Mark Latham, Labor's brains trust seems to have identified the wrong issues from its failed campaign to indulge in over the coming term.
While it is early days and the searing and historic loss will take some time to percolate through the minds of the senior ALP players, Mr Latham's initial take on Labor's policies and performance was not encouraging.
At his first major speech - to the Labor Party's Tasmanian state conference - Mr Latham blamed the party's loss principally on its advertising campaign.
"Where we lost badly was in the paid advertising campaign," he told the party faithful who had the Tasmanian populace dump two of their five federal members.Fear campaign
"Our Liberal opponents spent a record amount of money on attack ads - blitzing the airwaves with a fear campaign on economic management and interest rates.
"I believe with the benefit of hindsight ... that my greatest misjudgement was in believing that the positive party would win the election."
In other words, it was neither Mr Latham's decision to walk from Australia's commitment in Iraq or his Whitlamesque policies on schools and health, or his forests policy putting Bob Brown's Greens ahead of jobs, that damaged Labor's bid for office.
It was the party's advertising campaign that sold Labor short.
Even on the forests policy, which is now almost universally acknowledged as a disaster, Mr Latham was only prepared to concede a minor error in the delivery.
The substance and the thinking behind the policy was correct, he said.
"I have no doubt, absolutely no doubt that our forestry policy was well supported in many parts of Australia," he said. "But it wasn't supported in Bass and Braddon."
Mr Latham clearly does not understand that the policy - which put green values ahead of jobs - went to the very heart of the reason why the country rejected him.
While mouthing platitudes about being a working-class boy made good, in the end he decided to side with the caffe latte set which hates the working class.
The history of recent elections is worth restating to show how misguided and wasteful Labor's nine-year period in Opposition has been.
After the 1996 election disaster, Labor did everything it could to run away from the Keating legacy, even disowning the positive achievements on the economic front and thereby denying itself any credit for the long period of prosperity since then.
After the 1998 GST election, Labor decided to adopt a small target strategy - surf into office on the failings and unpopularity of the Howard administration.
After the 2001 "Tampa" election, Labor spent a year and a half trying to find a middle way between a tougher anti-asylum-seeker policy and compassion for people left in the no-man's land of the detention system.Waste of valuable time
It also wasted months of valuable time agonising how to reduce the grip of the union movement on the party. The result was an incremental change, with the unions still dominant, and the public blissfully unaware of the problem or the solution.
This time Labor seems to be focussing entirely on its perceived economic shortcomings as the way forward to the next election.
Mr Latham also said Labor had to move with the times and accept that the vast bulk of Australians were orientated toward a more small business, independent, and wealth-building culture.
And he wants to re-establish Labor's credentials as an economic reforming party chasing further productivity gains and efficiencies - as the magic pill which will win back the faithful.
Clearly, the early omens for Mr Latham having an objective understanding of why he failed are not good.
Unable to admit the fundamental problems and his own culpability, he has careered off into a crusade to make Labor more "economically responsible".
"Our choice is simple," he declared in Tasmania. "We can either move with the times or be swept away by them."
Unfortunately, Mr Latham still appears to be fixed firmly in the rear view mirror.