August 15, 2004 | Graham

Latham hands Howard FTA advantage.

The conventional analysis of Mark Latham’s FTA manouvering is that he has beaten Howard with nimble “new politics” footwork. Like much conventional analysis it is wrong, even if Howard is not able to counter the move. If Howard parries correctly it could be to Latham what the exemption of GST on food was to Meg Lees – the most pyrrhic of victories. (Please note, the only real notice of the Olympics that this columnist is likely to take could be in a proliferation of words with Greek roots.)
Why is the conventional analysis wrong? Because it takes an insider’s view of what Latham should be doing. The reason that On Line Opinion does qualitative research work is because insiders are only one part of the equation. They can influence large numbers of voters (sometimes perversely in the opposite direction to what they intend), but they themselves only get one vote each.
In this case the conventional analysis says that Latham’s move was smart because it had Howard responding to his initiative, and because it gave the left of his party some cover on the issue with their own constituency. On the first point, no-one apart from insiders will remember who responded to whom when the election comes around. All they will remember will be that Labor let the FTA through.
On the second, I think it is more likely to alienate the left-wing constituency from Labor than placate it. Latham talks a lot about “new politics”, but the politics he practices is the politics of wheel and deal – that is “old politics”. He does it with some flair, but he is essentially trying to give all his constituencies enough to keep them in his electoral coalition. At the same time he is trying to split up Howard’s constituency. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is a type of “new politics” around that takes a different view. It is “new” in the sense that major mainstream parties seldom attempt it, because it is unsustainable in government.
This is the politics represented by Bob Brown and The Greens. This is “heart on the sleeve”, “take no prisoners”, “all or nothing politics”. It was also the style practiced by Pauline Hanson. It is characterised by a constituency that is alienated from “politics as usual” and wants to teach the majors a lesson.
When we researched One Nation voters in the last election they told us that they were voting for John Howard because he was “doing what she [Hanson] told him to do”.
Latham initially won good support from the left, possibly because they thought that he was doing what they wanted him to do. He certainly seemd to be fishing for that with his comments on the US alliance, for example. The FTA was another area where he was making comments they would have liked.
Latham is losing the left and they are vulnerable to an approach from Howard. This “new politics” is also the politics of retribution. When Labor supported the government’s ban on Gay Marriage there were protests. They weren’t against the Liberals, however, they were against Labor. Even though Latham is closer to the left than Howard can ever be, he cannot take their votes for granted. They may decide to vote against him to teach him a lesson.
If the left supports a Labor government that ends up being a re-run of the Hawke and Keating ones, then they have gained very little, if anything. If Labor in Opposition can so easily be convinced to back the government’s line on terrorism, the FTA and gay marriage, then why should they be any different in government? From a strategic left perspective, mightn’t it be better to support Howard this time if that forced Labor to remake itself into a genuinely left-wing party by the election after this?
It would be difficult for Howard to pitch this line, but Bob Brown might be tempted to. Brown and the Greens only get leverage when the two major parties disagree with each other and need minority support to break the deadlock. The history of the Coalition in Opposition in the 90s was that it was quite prepared to back Labor legislation that it agreed with. Labor by contrast tends to be more opportunistic in Opposition. As a result Brown probably has more power to stop the things he dislikes when the Liberal Party is in power, than when Labor is.
Howard could help the process along by running ads telling people that Latham’s “new politics” is just “old politics” rebranded. This could be done as part of illustrating Howard’s theme that he is a “conviction” politician, whilst Latham is dangerously erratic. Demonstrating this would have the side benefit of showing left-wing voters that they have been sold out.
I could be wrong. What I am sketching here is merely a “what if” scenario. But when the election is called, it will be one of the possibilities that we will be testing with our focus groups to see how they react.

Posted by Graham at 4:00 pm | Comments Off on Latham hands Howard FTA advantage. |
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