A remarkable, but real, possibility – a Latham win


If Saturday’s election makes Mark Latham Prime Minister it will be a remarkable feat. And it continues to be a real possibility. When he became leader of the Labor Party ten months ago, by the barest margin, Latham was virtually unknown to the electorate at large, and the party was in a state of deep despondency.

Most of those who observed those depths saw the elevation of Latham as a huge gamble, the tightwire alternative to reinstalling Kim Beazley. Simon Crean’s leadership had been destroyed, but it was his loyalists who secured the job for Latham and began the Labor revival. Saturday will tell us whether the gamble has succeeded.

Neither the polls nor the campaign itself has given us much to indicate the election outcome. Three years ago, a different decision by fewer than 5000 of our 13 million electors could have produced a change of government, and something similar could be happening again. Who knows what shapes the decisions of that disparate minority?

The election campaign produced an unexpected (at least to this mature-age voter) emphasis on the aged, and good luck to them! Indeed, Labor’s Medicare Gold package was one of the few clear and resonant policy statements of the campaign, and for many the gloss will remain despite continuing argument among economists about its cost and sustainability.

But why such emphasis on age? This is a group rusted-on to their conservative voting habit. Perhaps Labor had research to suggest they could be shaken loose, perhaps even that this was a genuine area of unmet and unrecognised need. The Coalition advisers had sifted out most others they could find and bombarded them with our money.

The impact of Latham’s promise to the 75-and-over group shows what can be done with a well-crafted idea. But there wasn’t much with comparable impact from either side during the campaign. I suspect that as polling day approaches, relatively few voters will have analysed what the plethora of promises means for them.

Rather, they have been enveloped by a fog of figures and dollar signs that may have created an impression favourable to one side or the other but, more likely, has simply engendered cynicism.

In the Australian Financial Review a few days ago, Geoffrey Barker said of the campaign: ‘Both parties have preferred to splurge on pre-election bribes rather than to debate long-term policies to seriously address issues raised by the inter-generational report and by Australia’s still discouraging taxation system. John Howard and Mark Latham have shamelessly sought to manipulate public emotions.’

While they have been doing that, Howard and Latham also will have created an impression of themselves that could shape voting intentions as much as any specifics they are offering. The age and experience contrasts are obvious factors. So, too, the contrast of ideas and themes.

In his foreword to Mark Latham’s 1998 book Civilising Global Capital, Gough Whitlam wrote: ‘Since the March 1996 federal election it has been remarkable to watch the speed with which the Coalition has run out of ideas and answers on each of the key issues of national concern “ our place in the world, the growth of our economy, the strength and cohesiveness of our society.’ Despite its parliamentary majority, he said, the Howard government had ‘only a small mandate and ambition for change’.

What’s new? This campaign has not been a great contest of ideas, but of the limited original thinking on offer, the majority has come from Labor. One of the great failures was Howard’s speech on a ‘fourth-term agenda’, much previewed but reported in the end as an $800 box of tools for apprentices and skills training by non-unionised teachers.

All of which leads to a belief that the general impressions forming in voters’ minds are more likely to favour Latham than Howard, especially in younger minds. Nearly two million young voters have known only the Howard government. The few dozen that I’ve spoken to recently think it’s boring (and they don’t fancy Peter Costello).

They are also least likely to be encumbered by a mortgage and fearful of Labor’s alleged affinity with very high interest rates. And I suspect that most would not believe that someone aged 43, with his whole working lifetime in politics is too ‘inexperienced’ to be prime minister.

As to the question of credibility, the contest surely reached a peak this week in the old-growth forests. Latham had broken his commitment to timber workers, said John Howard, ‘and if he can break his word to the workers of Tasmania, why should any Australian believe any promise he makes to them at any stage during this election campaign?’

This from the inventor of ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ election promises.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.