April 01, 2004 | Peter

Suddenly It’s Latham’s and not Howard’s Way

There is something decidedly Oedipal about federal politics these days. Here is the overtly patriarchal John Howard (stern, authoritative, self–righteous) brawling with the brash, energetic and hungry Mark Latham over ownership of the motherland. Latham made the character of this conflict obvious when he made that crack about the desperation of a politician at the end of his career. And it is very relevant; Howard’s body language shows a man under growing pressure.
In coming down from his lofty throne and into the political bear pit, Howard has already lost vital ground. He has recognised Latham as a genuine alternative leader, and thus given him all the credibility that Crean and before him Beazley could never achieve. The fact that this latest fight (over Iraq briefings) was started by Alexander Downer, the patriarch’s idiot half-brother, is significant. Downer always gives the impression of someone who thinks he is capable of mixing in it with the big kids, but can never quite manage it. Someone always had to come in to clean it up for him.
Latham, on the other hand, is a natural brawler. He has kept that part of himself under wraps as leader, but he is not likely to suddenly fall apart as the temperature goes up. The big difference is that Latham – unlike Howard and Downer, not to mention Crean and Beazley – is genuinely smart. His intellectual ability is much greater than what we have some to expect from our political leaders. So complexity does not phase him like it did the previous leaders, because he is not restricted to what his advisers tell him after they have had time to work it out.
Howard in attack mode is never a pretty sight. His inherent negativity emerges and shapes his face into a mask of cold hostility. Howard has always been like the kid who despite being given what he wants somehow suspects it is all a trick and can’t enjoy it. He has never risen to the challenge of leadership, instead playing it safe as a politician and Liberal Party leader. His supposed Big Win – the GST – was in fact a policy decided on years ago by the global corporate sector, and Howard never accepted the social cost of this or any other political decision that shifted wealth so dramatically upwards.
Latham, for all his faults, has the potential to be something better. He is now setting agendas in national politics, and despite the intractable nature of some of the issues, he is making decisions. In doing this he is showing up not only Howard’s intellectual conservatism, but how it stultifies more imaginative responses to policy issues.
The media, acting with their reflexive destructiveness, try to worry Latham’s decisions to death with a thousand increasingly inane questions. For the media, only political disaster is interesting. They want everyone to crash and burn because it makes for a spectacular show. Latham cannot and should not rely on Howard’s method of dealing with the media – that is, to refuse to engage in any serious analysis of his actions. He is at last a pro-active Labor leader, and he has to welcome the attention and use the media to get the electorate alongside (at least Labor can’t complain, as they did under Beazley and Crean, that they get no attention from the media).
But this will only work if Latham accepts personal authority. If he has to vet every comment with his advisers, staff and otherwise, he will falter, and then Howard’s unrelenting hostility will hit home.
We have an interesting contest. Latham is taking risks, he has flushed Howard out, and so far he is handling the heat. If he can stay focused, he’ll win the election because he shows up Howard’s real weaknesses. John Howard looks more and more like a man whose suit is suddenly too big for him.

Posted by Peter at 11:33 am | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. I completely disagree with your appraisal of Mark Latham. He is the consumate reactionary. He keeps his finger on the pulse – of populist opinion which is where a leader’s obersvation should not be.
    Leadership is about the nation’s welfare – not about what will pump up next week’s opinion poll another 4%.
    Without a doubt Latham will run Australia into the ground like all recent Labor leaders before him, if he gets into power.
    His most recent promise to return Australia’s troops from Iraq by Christmas is just more evidence of his base populism. I would like them home too, but I – like most Australian’s – realise there is much work left in Iraq to rebuild their society.

    Comment by R — April 2, 2004 @ 3:38 pm

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