A question of mind-set


The best way ahead for Labor is for Mark Latham to adopt and articulate a two-term re-election strategy. His post-election insistence on victory in 2007 is undermining the credibility of his leadership. Nobody believes it and it gets in the way of the real tasks of policy development and party rehabilitation.

It is largely a question of mind-set. John Howard has already disclosed his mind-set, with the astonishing proposition that he wants the coalition to adopt a permanent election mode. Apart from everybody else, a two-term strategy by Labor can be portrayed as a healthy antidote against the cynicism implicit in the Howard approach.

But there is an over-reaching reason why Latham and Labor must not be seen as staking everything on a single-term win. It says that we want a huge national disaster for Australia in the next two years. How else could we realistically purport to expect to gain sixteen or seventeen seats in a single bound? There could be nothing more demoralising for the Party than the impression that we have a vested interest in the misery of the people.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Latham and Labor go into the next election with anything other than a determination to win. That is a given. I am saying that any result short of victory must not mean automatically the end of Latham’s leadership. In the absence of an agreed and accepted two-term strategy, there will be pressure on Latham to make just such a declaration in 2007. I dread a repetition of Beazley’s premature abdication on election night 2001. The present absurdity of the Australian Labor Party is that we waste our leaders but protect the machine.

It is true that after the 1966 debacle, Whitlam announced on 8 February 1967, the day of his election as leader, what was in effect a one-term strategy. He said: ‘Clearly the Labor Party cannot exist as a credible alternative government unless we are, and are seen to be, willing and capable of gaining and holding the power of government in 1969.’ And John Menadue formulated the shorthand: ‘This year the party; next year the policy; 1969 “ the people.’

And it is also true that in 1969, in fairly favourable economic circumstances for the Gorton Government, Whitlam won sixteen seats with a swing of over seven percent, still the largest swing between successive elections ever achieved. But in practice Whitlam pursued a two-term strategy and in reality it did take two terms. That was the significance of his reply to Menzies’ congratulations in 1972: ‘Your achievement in restoring your party to government in two terms has been an abiding inspiration for me.’ I am suggesting that the reality and practice of the Whitlam opposition years are more relevant for Latham Labor than the brave words of February 1967. Why not admit it “ indeed, embrace it?

Latham needs to give himself space and pace; and the party needs to give him space. The great generosity of Kim Beazley’s speech on election night “ why does Kim always keep his best speeches for defeat? “ should not go for nothing.

But it underlines the big differences between 1966 and 2004. Although he had been the deputy, Whitlam didn’t have to waste time agonising over the defeat. Calwell and Vietnam were quite enough and Whitlam just absolved himself. Latham has no such luxury. The Party has done that by re-electing him unopposed and must accept the logic of its own decision. Surely it was not a decision to take Latham on sufferance, to give him one last go; it was a decision for the long haul.

Whitlam’s other advantage after 1966 was that, in policy terms, he could regard himself as writing on a clean slate. But he did not seek to distance himself from the Chifley Government by pledging not to raise the nationalisation issue a la Calwell in 1961 or 1963; on the contrary the whole Whitlam Program was based on using Section 96 to achieve the results which Section 92 was deemed to have closed against Chifley.

Paul Keating is absolutely correct when he identifies Labor’s fundamental mistake since 1996 in distancing itself from the achievements of the Hawke and Keating Governments. It was not until the 10th anniversary of Hawke’s election that Labor began to receive due credit for the strengths of the Australian economy; and then it was largely the work of the Australian Financial Review. Labor has only itself to blame if the public remembers nothing except the recession, the high interest rate and the 1996 deficit.

Only last month, the productivity Commission claimed that the reforms of the 90s had ‘yielded the equivalent of an additional $7000 to the average Australian household’ (AFR 5/11/04). Labor is surely entitled to associate itself with the new prosperity; it has utterly failed to do so. The overall record and performance of the Hawke and Keating Government should be the basis of Latham Labor’s policy review, not least in economic management and industrial relations.

Another basis for future policies is, of course, the 2004 policy. But the policies as presented show all the drawbacks of the single-hit campaign. If ever there was an election where Labor should not have been disadvantaged by the ‘Where’s the money coming from’ syndrome, this was it.

Well before the last Budget, it was clear that Howard would outbid Labor relentlessly. It may have been very laudable to show our fiscal responsibility; but why should that have meant that our strongest policies should each be accompanied by a negative “ the idea that voters will exchange an existing and active benefit for a general principle. Our hit-list on schools remind me of what Joe Chamberlain said to me about State Aid in 1963: ‘Graham, for every vote we lose from the Catholics who want State Aid, we will gain votes from the Protestants who oppose State Aid’.

This sort of nonsense still pervades the Labor Party on almost every issue, not least the environment. The task ahead is to develop our policies for equality, tolerance and independence in an electorally sustainable way. If the prevailing mood in 2004 happens not to favour these ideals, why should we give them up? On the contrary, we should be all the more defiant in the expression, but always keeping in mind: the job is to change enough votes in the next two terms in order to reinforce them with the power of government.

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.