FEDERAL ELECTION 1: News Weekly
Behind Labor's landslide loss
, October 23, 2004
The Labor Party is in as perilous a position as any it has been since March 1996 when Paul Keating was thrown out of office in a landslide.
None of the promises of the Mark Latham ascendancy have come to fruition, the party has gone backwards both in seats and votes, and all of the old deep ideological rifts have surfaced again.
Labor appears to have lost control of the Senate, and the seats in the House of Representatives it needs to win government have seen their margins blown out to become safe Coalition seats.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that Mr Latham was never going to win.
While there is some degree of frustration and ill-feeling about the Howard Government's performance, the economy has performed well over an extraordinarily extended period, unemployment is falling, and inflation remains low.Inexperienced
To dump the incumbents and switch to an untried, inexperienced leader would have seemed an odd decision.
But virtually no one predicted that John Howard would be returned with an increased majority, and the scale of Labor's loss has left its most hard-headed supporters deeply despondent.
Opposition Senate leader John Faulkner has seen the writing on the wall by becoming the first frontbencher to resign.
Perhaps, the self-styled historian of the Labor Party can see that the ALP is possibly two terms from government, and another six gruelling years as Senate leader was simply too much.
Post mortems are already underway inside the Labor Party, but the early signs of the ALP having a serious and objective look at the reasons for the devastating loss are not good.
Labor luminaries have nominated its shortcomings as good economic managers as the number one reason for the loss - code for blaming Simon Crean, who also quit.
At his first post-election press conference, Mr Latham did not back Mr Crean or his deputy Jenny Macklin - yet it was Mr Latham who handed the Treasury portfolio to his predecessor when he became leader, despite serious misgivings inside the party.
But it would be unfair to Mr Crean, whatever his own shortcomings as a policy salesman.
Given the current buoyancy of the economy it would be difficult for anyone from Opposition to establish an economic ascendancy over the Government, and the blame-shifting merely masks deeper problems inside the party.
Incredibly, Mr Latham also staunchly defended his Tasmanian forests policy - the most spectacular "own goal" of the election.
No single event during the campaign did more to undermine Labor's message, create public division and reinforce voter doubts about Mr Latham's ability to lead the nation, than his decision to back Bob Brown's plan to "save" the forests.
More worrying still, this single decision resurrected the deep and unresolved division in the Labor Party between its twin constituencies - the inner-city wealthy left and its lower- to middle-class and union base.
Eventually we will learn how Mr Latham came to change his mind on the forests, and what people inside and outside the party persuaded him.
But certainly, when he joined Senator Brown for the inspection of the forests earlier in the year - talking to union and forestry groups as well as green groups - he remained sceptical about the need to preserve an even greater share of the old-growth forests.
At some point, probably during the campaign, Mr Latham chose to side with the trendy city-set and set himself against his working-class base.
It was a strategic blunder that cost him two Tasmanian seats and the chance of picking up half a dozen other Coalition mainland seats, and turned the working-class against him in safe Labor seats in Melbourne and Sydney.
But it has also exposed a fundamental flaw, Mr Latham's judgement, character and his much-vaunted claims to have his heart with the ordinary people.
Labor is rallying around Mr Latham for now, mainly because there is simply no one else to turn to.
But he will find the coming three years much harder than the first 10 months, when he was given a free rein to do what he liked.
Mr Latham walked over a lot of people to get the policies he wanted, but no one squealed because the prospects of government, the perks and the white ministerial cars seemed so tantalisingly close.
He failed to deliver and MPs, unionists and factional chiefs will not be so accommodating from here on in.