December 12, 2003 | Graham

First qualitative research on Latham

About once a month I form part of a panel on Kirsten MacGregor’s show on local ABC radio called “Week in Review”. This morning the other members were Adrian McGregor from The Australian and Cathy Border, Political Editor of Channel Ten. Mark Latham was in town and Kirsten was interviewing him, so we had the pleasure of listening to her gentle and keen interviewing style through the studio window. Unfortunately they don’t archive real audio excerpts on the local ABC site. I thought her best question was the one where she asked Latham about his promise to reform – “Is this going to cramp your style and stop you from saying things that need to be said?” (or words to that effect).
It’s a good question. Can Latham change his rhythm, and if he does will it rob him of the one thing that people are most excited about in him – his energy? And if he can change that rhythm, was the earlier Latham only an act? On Line Opinion has done some polling on the issues, and one focus group. We haven’t done the full analysis yet, but I have done a “quick and dirty” one which I sent in to Kirsten’s producer Lesley Major earlier this morning. If you want the same peek I gave Kirsten and Lesley, click here. (If it asks for your “user name” and “password” just click cancel).
My take is that his support is very brittle. Latham has energized and changed the political landscape. Support on the left is strong for him and some Australians who currently support the government are thinking of moving across. However, it will all come undone if Latham adopts policies that are seen as being too similar to the government on the economy, foreign affairs and refugees. His biggest stumble to date appears to be the photograph in front of the US flag. While voters largely like what he is saying, and he is concentrating on the right issues, he is widely regarded as an unknown quantity. He needs to establish what he stands for very clearly and runs a risk that if he can’t then the government will do it for him.

Posted by Graham at 10:08 am | Comments (9) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Overall, Latham is probably a “good thing” for Australian politics. Many people probably imagine they can express their anger through his aggressive articulation of the many economic, social and security/strategic problems that are out there.
    If it’s not the biggest problem, certainly the most persistently unresolved problem of the past thirty years is our economic policy – and, of course, the social issues that are associated with it.
    At the moment, Latham seems like Bill Hayden in the 1970s. Both of them, I understand, did a little economics at university and, for both of them, that little learning was/is a dangerous thing.
    We have had no Labor Party economic policy now for many years – and no effective social policy because that must be, in the end, dependent on an economic policy that can support it.
    The great age for Labor, in terms of economic and social policy, was in the postwar period and, at the personal level was dominated by Bren Chifley, first as Treasurer from 1941 to 1945 and then as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1949.
    The two documents that enshrined the essence of Labor policies at that time were the White Paper on Full Employment of 1945 and the Banking Act of 1944 (allied with the Commonwealth Bank Act of, as I recall, the same year.) Chifley had been a prominent contributor to the proceedings of the Royal Commission on Money and Banking of 1936 ore thereabouts – one of the more valuable documents in our economic and social archive.
    As I understand Latham, he has “done” some economics at university and has swallowed whole the destructive notions that we in Australia have tragically imported from the United States, in some ways ever since Nixon and the Fed “damped down the economy” with fiscal measures and hikes in interest rates in 1969. We followed US policies with ever more vigour and determination to self-destruct, under Hawke and Keating in the 1980s and 1990s. Under Howard, need it be said, that we are still firm believers in the “Washington Consensus” and, instead of sound domestic economic policies, we look to rely on tying ourselves ever more tightly, under a free-trade agreement, to the very economy from which we should have cut the painter decades ago.
    Latham shows no sign that he understands any of this. If his aggressive articulation of issues leads him to the Prime Ministership, he can offer only acute disappointment to the millions of battlers – and indeed to millions of ordinary middle-income and upper-income voters – who know that we need new economic and social policies but who have so far been unable to articulate them, for themselves, in any detail. In other words, the great danger is that Latham’s aggressive articulation is a front, behind which lies a void of real understanding, in this context, of economic policy imperatives and the social imperatives that go with them.
    I’d like to see Mark Latham as Labor’s Ben Chifley come to life again in the 21st century; but, sadly, I see few signs of that yet.

    Comment by James Cumes — December 12, 2003 @ 6:25 pm

  2. James,
    You blame Sydney Uni for Mark’s economic views, but in fact he would have taken a left-wing view of economics from his lecturers there who included Frank Stilwell. To get a flavour of Frank’s views readers might like to go to this article
    The economic rationalism that Mark might have isn’t a product of his schooling.

    Comment by Graham Young — December 12, 2003 @ 11:03 pm

  3. The perception that Mark Latham is an “Economic Rationalist” in the perjorative sense might simply be a misreading of his views. Perhaps he has simply “rationally” come to the conclusion that many of the policy instruments traditionally used by the “left” have either started to fail because of changing circumstances or simply never really worked at all.
    At the highest level, titles of books he has written or participated in like “Civilising Global Capital” and “The Enabling State” don’t sound to me like the product of a “neocon” mind.
    It’s always a lot easier to complain about what is wrong with the world than to do effective things to change it. The article by Stilwell that Graham referenced identifies some good examples of what is wrong with the present configuration of our society but seems to still rely mainly on very traditional policy instruments to effect change.
    Perhaps Latham is simply taking this sort of analysis on to the next stage – that of finding polcicies that will effect real change. A lot of traditional policy instruments (eg overstrong progressive taxation) just distort outcomes but leave fundamental problems unresolved and thus guarantee that they will keep coming back again and again.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — December 13, 2003 @ 6:29 am

  4. In which case Alex, he is an “economic rationalist” in the sense that I am. In fact, it would be really interesting to look at those who are abjured for being ERs and see why they hold those views.
    Paul Keating was a late convert. I’m not sure when Peter Walsh came to these conclusions. We know PP McGuinness was a communist at some stage. My Damascus Road conversion started somewhere around the 1982 housing boom when Fraser froze interest rates. Rather than making housing more affordable, it rationed credit so that only the relatively well-off could get it.
    Since then I have always been uninterested in schemes that try to make economic waters flow uphill, and totally fascinated in thinking of ways to make them flow downhill so that they benefit people rather than washing them away.
    Unfortunately the romantic left still hasn’t worked out which way gravity works, and seem to hate anyone who might suggest that there is no point railing against the laws of nature.

    Comment by Graham Young — December 14, 2003 @ 12:10 am

  5. Graham,
    Sorry to disrupt the excellent discussion here However,
    a small philiosophical point needs to be made.
    The laws of neo-classical economics are not the laws of nature.
    The free market is a social construct built by human beings in a certain historical period, not a mirroring of the natural laws of gravity.
    Society does not mirror the deep furniture of nature, whatever befuddled economic rationalists may want to believe in their more metaphysical realist moments.
    True, the romantic left have historically been suspicious of the deregulated since the 19th century. They are railing against the forces of capitalism not nature.
    And there is good reason to be sceptical of the consequences of the free market, given the destruction of nature in Australia as a result of the normal workings of the market.
    eg. land clearing in Queensland and Tasmania.
    the negative impact of sugarcane farming on the Great Barrier Reef.
    dryland salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin

    Comment by Gary Sauer-Thompson — December 14, 2003 @ 3:36 pm

  6. Hmmmm. While there may be many ways of organising human society I think there is a fundamental law of nature which is that organisms tend to be selfish, and humans, being organisms, follow that tendency. So, any way of organising human society that doesn’t take this into account is going to be less successful than it sets out to be.
    Economic systems aren’t laws of nature, they are systems that seek to utilise them. I have certainly never claimed anything more for them. I think your post is at cross purposes with mine.

    Comment by Graham Young — December 14, 2003 @ 7:10 pm

  7. Fourth Way, Fourth Estate kind of Economic Way?
    Generational Change: Be Careful What You Wish For…
    Media and Blogs seem to give Latham a lots of oxygen and only time will tell how the generational change will effect the two major players.
    This weekend in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section is a piece by Everett Ehrlich, Bill Clinton’s undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs, on the economic reasons why the Internet is bringing about the decline of the two major political parties:
    To an economist, the “trick” of the Internet is that it drives the cost of information down to virtually zero. So…smaller information-gathering costs mean smaller organizations. And that’s why the Internet has made it easier for small folks, whether small firms or dark-horse candidates such as Howard Dean, to take on the big ones….
    Say you want to buy an appliance, or a vacation. You know there are bargains out there, but it takes time and energy to find them. That’s what economists call the “transaction cost” of a purchase. This cost of acquiring information is everywhere: the time it takes to call a friend or to learn something in a newspaper. Or the time and resources it takes a company to find out where to find parts and to make sure they show up at an assembly line on time.
    Back when it cost a great deal to learn and know things — when transaction costs were very high — big corporations had to solve the problem of coordinating information, such as what customers wanted to buy, what parts were being produced and shipped, how to make sure prices covered costs, and so on. The advent of mass production and similar “process” technologies let firms produce and sell things — cars, steel, oil, chemicals, food — on a much larger scale, so there was suddenly much more information to coordinate.
    Companies solved this problem by creating massive bureaucratic pyramids… Now, however, with internal communications networks and the speed of the Internet, you don’t need a horde of people in a big pyramid to handle all that information. Firms have become “flatter” and “faster,” and the “networked” or “virtual” company has come into being — groups of firms that use shared networks to behave as if they were part of the same company….
    Now anyone with a Web site and a server, a satellite transponder and about $100 million can have — in a matter of months — much of what the political parties have taken generations to build. Technology, of course, has changed politics before. Television changed the two parties, for example, but it didn’t make the parties obsolete. In fact, in the day of Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, television strengthened the two-party duopoly (the economist’s term for a shared monopoly), as only those two parties had the resources to use it competitively.
    But the Internet doesn’t reinforce the parties — instead, it questions their very rationale. You don’t need a political party to keep the ball rolling — you can have a virtual party do it just as easily…..
    So Internet reinforces more than generational change!!! It reinforces unlimited networking and shows daily the way of sharing information and power. Hierarchy is out and circles are in. Whatever it takes mentality; jobs for the boys and soecial interest groups is out and jobs on merit is and public interest is in.
    Left and right (Wet/Dry) is out and right and wrong is in…
    Read the whole thing …
    PS: Blogger Graham Young for PM with the roundest table (smile)

    Comment by jozef — December 15, 2003 @ 6:35 pm

  8. Graham,
    I certainly don’t blame Sydney University for Mark Latham’s shortcomings nor do I blame Frank Stilwell whose views, in so far as I know them seem to accord with my own.
    Mark Latham must be responsible for what value he derived from his university teachers and from his own university work.
    Having said that, the mainstreamers, whether in the academic world or the commercial/political world, seem to have had a dream run for many years and the dissidents – there are a body of us – have been left to sing their melodies in the cold to an audience of very few.
    In so far as I have seen evidence of what Latham thinks, he is not “one of us” but a mainstreamer in a pretty seriously grave sense.
    I hope he will learn as responsibility descends on him and he is influenced by members of his own Labor Party – who may perhaps be closer in their thinking to Frank Stilwell.

    Comment by James Cumes — December 17, 2003 @ 5:21 am

  9. The thing that excites me about Latham is that he has solidified the issue of tax cuts on the national agenda. In particular his articulation of the view that the top tax rate should not cut in until an income level of $80000 per annum. This was no accident on his part. He seems to be one of the few politicians who actually believes in the merits of lowering the trade barriers between australian households. Even if his understanding of the benefits sometimes appears superficial.
    I actually think that Costellos tiny tax cuts were a political teaser designed to evoke a “there not big enough” outrage responce that could then be used to justify further cuts. So in a sence I also credit Costello with shifting tax cuts back onto the national agenda.
    Whether its a lifting of the tax free threshold or a cut in the top tax rate or a shift in where the top tax bracket cuts in I would support any form of income tax relief. So a big tick for Latham so far.
    We need an Australian tax burden comparable to the post war years. Back in the era when taxes were low and money was hard. Its the only viable path back to full employment.

    Comment by Terje Petersen — December 18, 2003 @ 10:20 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.