October 24, 2004 | Graham

Crean decision illustrates why the electorate didn’t trust Latham

I’m agnostic as to whether Simon Crean should have stayed on the front-bench or not. What I do have strong views about is the way in which his front-bench position was saved. It illustrates many of the reasons why the electorate didn’t have the confidence to vote for Mark Latham and Labor. I deliberately twin the man and the organisation, because the underlying reasons not just for the 2004 loss, but the 2001 one as well, are corporate.
Electors like what they hear Labor saying, but they have no confidence in its ability to deliver. In 2001 the critical issue for a key group of voters was refugees. Beazley was making the right noises, but many of his backbench weren’t. Electors didn’t trust the party to stick to its policy if it was elected.
This last election the electorate’s lack of knowledge and experience of Mark Latham amplified these concerns. The issues may have been more economic, but the underlying concerns were the same. They were to do with the leader’s ability to enforce policy decisions and his team’s ability and willingness to back them.
Those themes of indecision, disunity, disloyalty, weakness and incompetence play again in the Crean decision. Crean was turned down for a front-bench position by his own faction, despite Latham’s clear wish to have him there – disunity, disloyalty, incompetence and plain bloody-mindedness. Then there was a proposal for the independents to give him one of their positions – indecision, weakness and incompetence. Finally the impasse was resolved by simply expanding the number of frontbench positions – yet more incompetence, weakness and incompetence.
Of all the possible solutions to the problem probably the worst was expanding the size of the cabinet. It is the “every child player wins a prize” model of political leadership which is unlikely to be appealing to electors worried about mortgage repayments. What would Latham do if faced by a tough economic decision? Go for the easy option so as not to upset anyone? Are interest rates susceptible to the easiest option?
I can just hear the government working up its lines for the first sitting week of the new parliament – “If you can’t govern your own party, how can you govern the country? If you can’t manage your party, how can you manage the economy?”. I can also here the Labor factions working up their own special pleadings, conscious that here they have a “leader” who is not game to say no.
So Latham goes into this sitting of parliament likely to be squeezed from both sides. No wonder a number of other erstwhile frontbenchers have decided to stand aside – better to be a spectator this next quarter than a player.

Posted by Graham at 11:59 am | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Thanks Graham- I thought your observations were very well put. I hadn’t seen the events in quite the same way and am grateful to you for pointing it out.

    Comment by Suzanne — October 25, 2004 @ 3:58 pm

  2. Hi Suzanne, since writing it I’ve talked to a few people less engaged in the minutiae of politics than me, and I think the problem is much wider than what I thought. I’ve become comfortable, in a way, with the factional method of running the Labor Party; or at least I don’t think about it much. But others seem to find the whole factional system and the way it determines frontbench positions alienating. Maybe it is time for the ALP to move to a model closer to the Liberals and Nationals, or maybe it is a sign that when you are in opposition the factional system is much creakier.

    Comment by Graham Young — October 27, 2004 @ 6:27 am

  3. I think factions might advertise that there is some diversity in the Labor party, but they also make Labor’s front bench look like seats for the mates or those who have IOUs because so and so supported this and that union official 5 years ago and now they deserve some reward for doing so.
    What do you think of Labors current relationship with the Unions? Do they get too much say in the party? Or is the relationship fairly balanced?

    Comment by matt byrne — October 27, 2004 @ 12:06 pm

  4. The question is do you want a democratic party to govern our democracy – or do you want a dictatorship to govern our democracy.
    The dictatorship (the federal cabinet of John Howard) presents strength, unity and a single minded agenda. Its easy to sell and even easier to control. The Liberals that are elected have no say in party policy. Just mindless drones.
    Labor is partly democratic – with party policy being determined democratically (albeit witha 50:50 split with the union).
    The Greens are totally democratic with party policy being determined by grass roots members.
    It confuses me no end that we can accept a country so proud of democracy can only swallow a dictatorship and not accept the true diversity of opinions present within a single party.

    Comment by alphacoward — October 29, 2004 @ 1:36 pm

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