December 14, 2003 | Graham

Mark, you’re no Bob Hawke

In yesterday’s Australian Mark Latham is quoted as pointing to “John Curtin and Bob Hawke as examples he wanted to follow.”
He is promising to reform. Hawke and Curtin both apparently had drinking problems, however that exactly is defined. Latham says he doesn’t have an alcohol problem. He appears to be referring to his use of language. In that case I’m not exactly sure what he is saying, because being a bit verbally aggressive doesn’t really rank with alcoholism. Alcoholism can only properly be understood as an illness – something to a large extent involuntary – and is never really a good. Verbal aggression is much more of a personal choice, and is frequently a prized characteristic.
I can’t but help thinking that Latham is actually reaching out to these two iconic Labor leaders in a much deeper way than as role models for changing habits in his life. In our research into the last federal election we found a yearning for a different style of politics. Voters wanted inclusive leadership that could bring the nation together. 9/11 had given us a collective feeling of insecurity and voters thought it called for a different style of politics other than the confrontational. As “Gail2” said in our group of the 18th October, 2001 – “It ties in with the events of Sep 11. When the world experienced the emotion and the fear and the terror and the reality struck, I saw it as an opportunity to break through the usual political rhetoric.”
When pressed for an appropriate historical model PM participants nominated first Curtin, then Menzies, and when pressed, Bob Hawke. I think that it is this perception and need that Latham is actually subconsciously articulating.
I don’t think the role of conciliator and peacemaker is one for him. The thing that Latham has going for him at the moment is authenticity. It is a characteristic that voters don’t associate with Crean or Beazley, although they recognize elements of it in Howard. When asked to nominate authentic politicians in our research in the past they would nominate leaders like Bob Brown or Natasha Stott Depoja. It’s also a quality that Pauline Hanson had. Latham is not authentically a peacemaker in the public mind, and I don’t think that is his nature. To portray himself as one will cost him his authenticity.
The public has a Pygmalion impulse to try to mould public leaders in their own desired image and when they succeed they loathe and then despise them, muttering about “poll-driven politics”. No doubt Latham has been urged to be like Curtin and Hawke. It is an embrace that is to be resisted. Latham has got where he is by being himself, that’s his advantage. The Labor Party has lost three elections now because it has been seen to be untrustworthy, that’s his disadvantage. A Latham who changed character at this stage would lose the first and reinforce the second. He has enough difficulties in front of him without needlessly exaggerating them. Besides, it’s always easier to play yourself rather than someone else.

Posted by Graham at 9:14 pm | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. I think you might be reading a bit too much into it in one way and a bit too little in another.
    Perhaps he isn’t so much trying to emphasise being inclusive as he is to say that he (and the country) have the possibilty to change.
    I wonder whether the “bringing the nation together” emotion is actually a bit of a marker of the frustration that politics is more like a set piece battle than an attempt to get necessary things done – that is actually implicit in your quote above.
    Howard tries the ‘bringing the nation together’ thing but doesn’t seem to be able to resist using the wedge at every opportunity.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — December 15, 2003 @ 8:51 am

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