NATIONAL AFFAIRS: News Weekly
Latham's campaign dilemma
, September 25, 2004
Despite the bravado it was always going to be difficult for the Australian public to get to know, understand and trust Mark Latham in the short run-up between his elevation to leader last December and the Federal election.
With terror threats creating a constant background concern in the public's mind and the economy quite buoyant, it was also going to be a hard task for any Opposition to convince the Australian public that a change of government was necessary - let alone one led by a relative political unknown.
But having been thrust on to the public stage by a party desperate not to lose yet another election, Mr Latham managed to carry these handicaps with surprising ease for such a young politician.
The real test, the real baptism of fire was always going to be the campaign itself.Communicator
Mr Latham clearly is an excellent communicator and, in his eight or nine months as leader, he has displayed a unique ability to cut through the morass of what passes for political debate in the Federal Parliament.
He has also brought to politics a touch of the larrikin which, coupled with an aggressive style and empathy with working Australians, has resonated in the battler heartland Labor needs to win back from John Howard.
Even Mr Latham's relative youth (he is 43) was generally considered a plus compared with John Howard's 65 years - until his recent illness suggested that his health might be more fragile than he would like us to think.
Senior Labor strategists were banking on the hope that, with the commencement of the campaign and the elevation of Mr Latham onto equal footing with Mr Howard, the public might finally put aside any doubts and apprehensions they had about Mr Latham and listen to what he and Labor had to offer as an alternative government.
Respected pollsters like Rod Cameron were actually claiming that if Mr Latham's unpredictable, abrasive style of politics was deployed during the campaign, it could catapult the ALP leader back into forefront of the public's mind as it was for several months when he won the leadership last December.
Mr Cameron said Latham "unloosed" would make it difficult for the older, and more staid and wooden Mr Howard to counter.Juggernaut stalls
However, for a variety of reasons, these scenarios have not played out as intended and the Latham juggernaut has stalled.
Rather than amplifying the Latham personality, the campaign seems to be stultifying him.
There was a hint of the old Mark Latham during the Leaders' Debate, but by following a scripted format he has lost rather than gained momentum.
Mr Latham's tax and family policy had many good elements, including fixing the troublesome family debt-trap.
However, the family tax policy launch was initially confusing, had obvious holes for the Coalition to pounce on, and was compounded by Mr Latham's contention that the $600 end-of-year payments were "not real".
It was not a good start to the campaign, particularly given the fact Labor back-roomers had been working and reworking the policies for months.
Senior Liberals have concentrated their attacks since Mr Latham's elevation, and with increasing intensity during the campaign, on his obvious vulnerability - his lack of experience.
Mr Howard, Treasurer Peter Costello and others have been able to prosecute the case that Mr Latham's experience is both narrow and patchy, and that his life as a professional politician has consisted of working in the backrooms of other politicians and as mayor of the Liverpool Council.
But Mr Latham also seems to lack an older man's self-knowledge and the ability to be himself.
He is still torn between playing his natural aggressive role and the role being mapped out by his cautious advisers.
Mr Latham is battling between being himself and avoiding a cataclysmic blunder.
Despite this confusing tug-of-war over Latham's personality, he is far from out of the race.
The Coalition is carrying its own handicap consisting of the scars and scrapes of eight years in office, an accumulation of voter discontent caused by self-inflicted blunders and other unpopular decisions which inevitably alienate a large number of voters whoever is in government.
The Greens are expected to preference heavily in Labor's favour and, despite their wacky policies including an absurd drug policy, they will pick up a considerable slice of the liberal-left vote.
However, the doubts about Mr Latham are starting to creep back in, and he will need to go his own way if he has any hope of victory.