Wrapping up the election


When I woke up on Saturday morning, I had absolutely no idea who was going to win the election. After being inundated with wave after wave of policy announcements and spending commitments I was not only exhausted, I’m ashamed to say that in the final days of the campaign, I’d lost my perspective. My gut instinct told me that the Coalition would make it back by the skin of their teeth but I left the door ajar for Latham just in case he was able to sneak home.
What a sad, sad joke.
When Robert Ray called the result just after 7.30pm I sat stunned in disbelief. How could the Labor hard heads and strategists (not to mention the scores of political journalists) get it so wrong?
It was supposed to be the closest election in years. We all suspected the Coalition would win but not so comprehensively or so easily.
While there were symptoms early on that the campaign may have been going awry, the most obvious sign was the debacle in Tasmania.
After Latham released his forest policy last Monday, the Member for Bass, Michelle O’Byrne, bravely told anyone who would listen that there were 800 million reasons why forest workers should vote for Labor. But over in the seat of Braddon, Forestry Parliamentary Secretary, Sid Sidebottom, was so downcast he didn’t even bother spruiking.
Shadow Forestry Minister and Mark Latham’s best mate, Joel Fitzgibbon was nowhere to be seen when his Leader announced the policy and nor was Environment Shadow, Kelvin Thompson.
Fitzgibbon was given his portfolio because it was thought the amiable and capable Member for Hunter would be able to ‘manage’ the very vocal members from Tasmania within Caucus. Months ago Fitzgibbon urged his colleagues to be cautious about locking up Tassie, warning of a possible backlash – his advice was not heeded.
Labor had come up with just about every conceivable possibility on forests bar one “ that the PM might not release any policy at all. It was Latham’s decision and his decision alone to go ahead with the Tasmanian forest policy.
Latham, for all his faults, is quite astute at picking the way the wind is blowing. That he could have been spooked by Howard and so fatally misjudge the mood in Tasmania is indicative of two things. He either had poor advice or ignored the counsel of those around him and his perspective had been skewed by existing in a campaign bubble – cosseted and protected from all but the chosen few.
The night before polling day Latham hosted a team dinner for his staff. He told them he didn’t think they would win but he remained hopeful. It was a façade. Latham knew Labor was going to lose and had been told so earlier in the week by the numbers men. Despite this and despite watching the extraordinary pictures of John Howard being heartily embraced by forest workers with a growing sense of dread; the Leader told staff he believed they would hold all their seats in Tassie.
It was not to be. On Saturday night, fighting back tears, Michelle O’Byrne refused to admit defeat when she did her first live cross to Kerry O’Brien on the ABC. Sid Sidebottom, loyal till the end, refused to attack his Leader, but he knew deep in his heart he was a goner. Just after 7pm (EST) both conceded.
From then on it was all down hill for Labor across the country.
As Wayne Swan sarcastically observed it was all about ‘the economy, stupid’. And so it was. The punters liked Latham’s energy and enthusiasm; they just didn’t trust him with their money. It’s as simple as that.
It would appear that all the goodwill Latham seemed to engender during the campaign was an illusion.
Naturally insecure, Latham is a confidence player who constantly seeks reassurance from those around him. After a terrific performance at the not-so-Great Debate he seemed to coast along. He was swamped with well wishes wherever he went and even those dodgy polls favoured Labor week after week. But behind the scenes the message was coming through loud and clear to the faceless men who assess the electorate “ voters did not trust Labor to run the economy.
After eight years of the Coalition the electorate was open to change but Latham needed to convince voters Labor had the smarts to keep things ticking along. They comprehensively failed to do this.
The delivery of the Family Tax package was disastrous. The policy was Wayne Swan’s baby. A shrewd and canny frontbencher, Swan had worked long and hard on aspects of the strategy. Allowing Latham to field all the questions at the press conference following the release of the package was a serious mistake. Never a man for details, Latham struggled through the rigorous questioning and it wasn’t long before the assembled journos were ripping away the witty catch-cries and vapid platitudes.
The sentiment of the policy may have been worthy but it was unnecessarily complicated and difficult to sell. The pitch was supposed to establish beyond doubt Labor’s fiscal responsibility and economic credentials but it failed miserably.
Interestingly on the night the only person not to blame the loss on a Coalition interest rates scare campaign was Latham. Losing is a lonely business and as the Leader stepped up to hand victory on to Howard it was the first time I’d seen him without a gaggle of minders shadowing his every step.
Internally the blame game has begun in earnest and what a nasty, distasteful and ultimately futile game it is.
It’s a good thing that bitter and twisted former Labor has-beens are no longer intimately involved in the party. Labor will need all the help it can get to put the show back together and you would have thought people like Mike Costello could have kicked that process along instead of savaging the leadership.
Labor needs to discard a number of under performing and, let’s face it, talentless frontbenchers. Around the country the factions have started jockeying to work out the positions in the Shadow Ministry. Ever logical, John Faulkner knows there needs to be change and he’s gone to sit up the back of the class with his mate Robert Ray. But before the words were barely out of Faulkner’s mouth, his deputy, Stephen Conroy, let it be known he wanted to step up. The Left’s Kim Carr might have something to say about that.
Yesterday Simon Crean was ‘taking counsel’ on his position and the numbers are being counted for Julia Gillard unseating Deputy Leader, Jenny Macklin to give Latham the ‘Dream Team’ that he’d always wanted. Latham’s chief-of-staff, Mike Richards, who has had an uneasy relationship with his boss, has packed his bags and is headed back to Melbourne, unable to forge a real working partnership with the leader. Across the frontbench, senior staffers are pulling stumps and calling it a day.
On a more positive note Latham’s leadership was endorsed at a NSW Right factional meeting in Sydney on Monday. With the departures of Latham’s mentor, Laurie Brereton and Leo Macleay, the damaging split in the NSW Right, at last, has a chance to heal and a power sharing arrangement between Joel Fitzgibbon and Roger Price is on the cards.
Latham has always lacked a secure home power base having to rely on the patronage of others. The backing of a strong, stable and united faction will be essential for him in the months to come.
And Latham will need their support when he saddles up for next week’s Caucus meeting and the bloodletting begins.

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