January 30, 2004 | Peter

Latham as leader (so far)

The ALP national Conference was always going to be a major test for Mark Latham as new leader. What we have seen so far is Latham the Labor leader as opposed to Latham the ‘Third Way’ theorist.
Like many others, I have not been excited by Latham’s efforts at adapting ‘Third Way’ ideas to Australia, and I consider these notions somewhat out of date anyway. However, I have always appreciated Latham’s attempts to act as an intellectual in a country that does not greatly value this ability. He has at least shown he can think in a sustained way about the big issues, which is an outstanding feat for an Australian politician.
Australia is obsessed with the physical. Our heroes are sportsmen (sic) or sometimes soldiers. You know, action men. If we notice academics at all it is usually the physical scientists – after all, they actually make physical changes. To claim to be an intellectual in Australia is a risky thing, especially if you are expressly focussed on that strange art, politics. So I think we always have to recognise the courage that goes into such an effort, an attempt only made by Latham, Lindsay Tanner and few others in this generation of political leaders. After all, they could have been busy getting on the phone with their political mates to shore up personal support or organising jobs for their relatives.
But with this intellectual legacy, which took plenty of hard work, it was always going to be interesting to see how Latham responded to being ALP leader. So far, it seems like he has shifted to a more traditional Labor position of defending core principles, and constituencies, while promising progressive changes in controversial but structurally less important areas.
Thus, he says Labor will take a more independent foreign affairs line, return to a more explicitly social justice based approach to fundamental needs like health and education, and return to a more negotiated mode of industrial relations, including revamping the arbitration system. As for that hot topic of asylum seekers, he is opting to treat the asylum seekers better while going after the actual people smugglers. This is all remediation more than some sort of genuine reform program, like his hero Gough Whitlam introduced, but times are different, and it is a start.
It was particularly interesting seeing Latham take on the ultra-conservative Howard view of Australia head on. He talks about a ‘big Australia’ and the need to confront fear. I have written in ‘Online Opinion’ on Howard’s reconstruction of Australian society into one based on selfishness and fear (http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/2003/Jan03/McMahon.htm). This is a cornerstone of Howard’s intent to follow the American model of socio-economic development, as opposed to a continental European or Asian version (let alone an Australian one). The twin pillars of this approach are to isolate individuals (or at best nuclear families) who must depend on their own sustained efforts to compete within various markets (employment, health, education, retirement funding, etc) and who can expect decreasing support from public institutions. This in turn allows and is strengthened by a xenophobic national identity reliant on US protection in what is assumed to be an intrinsically hostile world. This is Howard’s own mindset, and he has endeavoured, with some success, to impose it on the national psyche.
Any Labor government has to confront this development and give Australians something better to believe in (I’ve also written on this, see: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=712).
There are big contests ahead, about so-called ‘free trade’ agreements for instance, but so far Latham is treading a middle road between responsible Labor leader and fiery intellectual with some degree of success. We’ll see if Prince Hal does in fact turn into King Henry, but so far the signs are good.

Posted by Peter at 1:15 pm | Comments Off on Latham as leader (so far) |
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