CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Labor after the Latham experiment
, January 29, 2005
Mark Latham's leadership was doomed from election day on October 9, 2004, but it took another three months for the reality to finally sink in.
Labor's 2004 result was as bad as any it had experienced in its previous 100 years, and this included elections held through depressions and splits in a party which is notorious for its deep and damaging splits.
But Labor's federal parliamentary members gambled all their collective chips on Mr Latham in the hope that his different style, relative youth and unique Labor upbringing would produce a spectacular if not improbable victory.
Instead it suffered a gut-wrenching loss and an alarming drop in its primary vote from which it could still take a couple of elections to recover.
In hindsight the Latham experiment looks a most reckless and unfortunate gamble for which the party must also take collective responsibility.
Unfortunately for Labor and for Mr Latham himself, Mr Latham was clearly too young and too inexperienced to take on the difficult job of Opposition leader, and was seemingly unable to take counsel from wiser heads in the party.
Mr Latham went to the election with a grab-bag of gimmicky policies, mixed in with a few good ones, but built on the "story" of the boy from Green Valley made good, the politician who read to kids.
But Mr Latham made a cardinal error of judgement during the election campaign for which he paid the ultimate price. He opted to side with the inner-city elites over Tasmanian forests rather than with the workers.
This more than anything else cost Mr Latham the leadership, because it not only reinforced all the doubts about his inexperience but became the ultimate contradiction in his attempt to be Labor's working-class hero.
Had it not been for that decision Mr Latham would still have lost the 2004 election, but might have been able to resurrect his career sometime in the future.
But whatever criticisms that can be levelled against Mr Latham - and there are many - he was nevertheless a young man of ideas, energy, and, most of all, a genuine working-class background, as opposed to the affluent careerists who now have a stranglehold on safe Labor seats.
The simple fact remains that all but one postwar Prime Minister was in the Federal Parliament for two decades before the Australian people and their respective political parties saw fit to let them lead the nation.
Unfortunately Labor tried to "fast-track" an Australian Prime Minister, and one who had considerable baggage at that, and has paid the price.
The only good thing to come out of the Latham experiment is that finally, after eight wasted years in Opposition, it may embark on a serious soul-searching effort about what kind of government it wants to lead, should it ever gain power again.
Labor no longer knows what it stands for, and has not had a clear idea at least since Paul Keating steered the party on a radical free-market course in the early 1980s.
MPs whose names have been mentioned as possible successors to Mr Latham include former and twice-beaten leader Kim Beazley, foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd, health spokeswoman Julia Gillard, Lindsay Tanner, Wayne Swan and Stephen Smith.
However, the likelihood would appear to be a two-way race between Mr Beazley and Mr Rudd.
Only Mr Beazley has the experience and gravitas sufficient to be considered as Prime Minister in the immediate future, but he too has health problems.
Mr Beazley will also have to stamp his authority on the party - something he was reluctant to do when he previously held the job.
Mr Beazley is highly regarded even from the conservative side of politics, but is conflict-averse and was guilty of wasting valuable months in Opposition without undertaking serious policy development.
Having lost two elections already, it will be a hard task to front up for a third.
But whoever succeeds must surely realise that the days of cosmetic changes must surely be over, and that ultimately it has to have the intellectual fight it should have had after the 1996 defeat.
However painful the task, Labor must go back to the fundamental problem of what kind of party it wants to be.