Latham might just whack 'wiffy' Howard


At the end of Week One of the election campaign Dawn Service rightly told readers of to ‘relax people “ we have five weeks to go’.

Amidst all the polling conjecture and betting markets, we should remind ourselves that Mr and Mrs Voter might have some vague feelings, good and bad, about both sides of politics – but will probably make their ultimate decision in the week or so before election day.

I have to keep reminding myself of this as well. I was recently trying to convince my dinner guests that they shouldn’t be fooled by the Coalition’s fear campaign over interest rate hikes under a Labor government.

‘There has been a fear campaign?’, they said.

Everyone around the table was still undecided. The walk to the polling booth would clear their heads so they could make a choice. Such is the dynamism of our democracy.

I doubt that my dinner guests or indeed the average voter will be thinking too hard about bombs going off in front of embassies when they join the line at their local public school on October 9. I wager they will be focussed on the issues that come up time and time again in phone canvassing about what matters to voters “ health, education and jobs.

Scrutineering at the last election in the federal seat of Wentworth, ballot after ballot came up without any of the necessary marks in boxes but simply with the words TAMPA. Many people were clearly so disgusted with the way both sides of politics dealt with the issue, they just had to register it. Even if it was to a tired collection of political hacks conned into staying after the polls closed to watch AEC officials count pieces of paper.

I can’t see the same people writing JARAKTA across their ballot papers, although I wouldn’t be surprised if IRAQ crops up.

John Howard has been wedging like crazy since Latham came into the job. What flummoxed Beazley and his crew hasn’t seemed to derail Latham in the same way. Latham – whilst making obligatory noises about ‘evil terrorists’ – has been doing an admirable job maintaining focus on those domestic issues that are Labor’s strength. It’s times like these I am grateful the caucus opted for the risky choice over the safe one.

Risk is important in left-of-centre politics. If people want a safe choice they will generally vote for the conservatives. If they want to register a protest vote, they will go for the minor parties. All the interest rate guarantees and carefully costed policy documents in the world don’t seem to make a dent in the general public perception that Labor won’t manage the economy as well as the Coalition. But if people care enough about health care, education and jobs they might feel compelled to ‘risk’ a Labor government.

Since the campaign started, I have noticed that some comparisons are popping up between this election and the Coalition landslide of 1996 “ that Howard is as wiffy as Keating was back then.

If comparisons are going to be made, I think we need to look back twenty rather than ten years to the 1983 election, in which Bob Hawke delivered the first of so many morale raising victories for the true believers who had all but given up on Labor at the federal level.

The ALP won that crucial election not just because people were over Malcolm Fraser but because the Party had undergone a public revision and renewal of its policies, personnel and public image, had sought out new constituencies, and had hammered home a clear and present policy agenda.

Connected to this issue, it seems that Labor does well when its leader personifies its policy message. In 1972, Latham’s mentor Gough Whitlam was a symbol of the modernised and reformed Australia he wanted to create. In 1983, the great conciliator Bob Hawke personified Labor’s messages of consensus, reconciliation and reconstruction.

In 2004 Latham, with his own (overused, but genuine) story of hard work and determination to climb that ladder of opportunity, might just reach out to those voters Labor lost by the end of the Hawke/Keating era.

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