Mogodon man stirs it up


By the time we get to election day, Mark Latham will have been ALP leader for just ten months.

His elevation promised an end to Labor’s failed small target strategy and some real excitement as we returned to a party of big ideas and big policies.

For most of the time since he became leader, however, he has been measured and subdued, bordering on dull. He’s seemed destined to become a leader in the Beazley and Crean tradition rather than herald a return to the bolder world of his political mentors, Whitlam and Keating.

But this week, buoyed by his debate win, and perhaps by a realisation that the campaign is half over and time is running out, he has been far more animated. Far more aggressive and a lot less cautious.

He needs to be.

The published polls are showing a tight outcome but they are still favouring Howard, and the professional bookmakers still have Latham at outside chance odds.

The announcement of the ALP’s schools policy breathed some real ideological fire into the dreary world of recent federal politics. Latham – shock! – was taking sides. There is an imbalance in the educational resources available to the nation’s children, and he says that part of the solution is to take some money back from the wealthy and give it to the poor.

As many commentators were at pains to point out, this goes against conventional campaign wisdom, which suggests that you must try and maximise the beneficiaries of your policy pronouncements while not making too many people worse off.

This may be good campaigning logic but it is a prescription for anaemic policy formulation. Real quality in reform is about changing the rules of the game and re-weighting the odds in favour of those who are currently missing out.

At the end of the day, the whole community may be better off. Along the way some people will lose, and their opposition will be vocal and trenchant, but that’s just political reality.

The defenders of Australia’s elite schools really don’t have a leg to stand on. Labor’s policy is complex and a bit tricky in terms of its treatment of some Jewish schools in the marginal Melbourne Ports electorate. But the core principle of Labor’s policy is sound and its implementation overdue.

Apart from being good policy, Latham will also score points with many people because Australians expect and admire courage in their leaders.

Another reason why Latham is right to take up the fight and spark a bit of controversy is the ALP’s low primary vote in the opinion polls. Governments have been fairly regularly returned with less than 45 per cent of the primary vote. But no Opposition leader since World War Two has won government without a high proportion of first preferences. Menzies got 50.3% in 1949, Whitlam got 49.6% in 1972, Fraser got 53.1% in 1975, Hawke 49.5% in 1983 and Howard got 46.9% in 1996.

The problem with relying on second preferences (notably of the Greens this time) is that the rate at which they will flow to Labor is likely to vary a lot, probably from as low as 60% to over 90%.

Unfortunately for the ALP, the lower conversion rates are more likely to occur in marginal seats.

Governments have a much better record of scraping over the line on the preferences of people who don’t like them but are still not quite sure about the opposition. To win, Latham has to give more than 40 percent of the voting population a strong reason to put him first.

There’s little doubt that the ‘offend no-one’ tactic has had the long-term cumulative effect of diminishing the ALP’s ‘rusted-on’ support base. On the Sunday after the last election, a senior right-wing ALP insider described this result to me as ‘defeat without honour’. He would have preferred his party to have been defeated because it adopted an unpopular position, not because it avoided anything controversial.

At some point you have to risk losing in order to give yourself a real chance of winning.

Perhaps Mark Latham reached that point this week.

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