January 25, 2005 | Graham

Cleaning up the Labor house

The last fortnight’s shennanigans show just why Mark Latham won the Labor leadership in the first place, and why federal Labor is likely to continue to lose elections.
Mark Latham was a supporter of On Line Opinion from an early stage, and one of the few Members of Parliament with any intellectual depth. He seemed to like ideas, and the bigger the better. For most politicians this is a flaw, and so it proved for Mark. Ideas weren’t enough to rescue the ALP from the bind in which it finds itself.
For Latham to have been able to win the last election he needed to do two things – one was to get his party to co-operate with him, and the other to get John Howard to do the same. In the end neither happened.
The problem for Labor is that it needs to reinvent itself, but there is nothing that it can reinvent itself to be which would be electorally more popular than it already is. Latham’s insight that Labor had to target aspirational voters was right, but to target this group he had to do two things. The first was to force the ALP to move convincingly to the right of the spectrum, just as Tony Blair did with UK Labour. The second was to prise aspirational voters free from John Howard.
In the end Latham appeared to lack conviction in his own platform and ideas, so surrendered to vested interests in his own party, like the anti-logging , the anti-private school and pro-free and universal health lobbies. Labor didn’t move to the right, he moved to the left. This abandonment of his positions reinforced electoral perceptions that Labor stood for nothing more than creeping into government, making his second task of regaining voters impossible.
And even if he had moved Labor to the right, he would still have needed Howard to abandon the centre to him for the gambit to work. Instead, Howard stayed there, and threw money at anyone whose vote he needed to win. Governments really do lose elections, and Howard knows that, so anyone leading Labor was going to have a hard time.
That doesn’t excuse Labor from trying to win elections, so this isn’t an excuse for staying as they are.
The reason that Latham couldn’t change his party is the reason that his party is in trouble. It doesn’t really want to change, and even if it did, it can’t agree on what it might change to, nor does it have a sufficiently competent and persuasive potential leader to guide it through. At the same time it knows that it can’t stay where it is. So the original election of Latham to leader by one vote was a fitting expression of this dilemma. While Beazley as the past was untenable, Latham, as the future, was only marginally better.
Without Latham there appears to be no future, not if Gillard and Rudd are the only two candidates. The last week and a half of shennanigans show that neither have the intellectual or political depth to do anything but perpetuate what is already there, and if its perpetuation you want, then Buddha Beazley is as close to Nirvana as you are likely to get.
That neither Gillard or Rudd are politically astute is demonstrated by the ham-fisted way that they have handled the nomination process. They should both have known from the outset that they didn’t have enough support, so running should not have been an option for either of them. Good politicians instinctively know when they are in with a show, and you shouldn’t need to count if you have less than a quarter of caucus votes in your pile.
If Rudd is a little innumerate and slow, then he could have used his visit to Indonesia as a cover while other people did a quick count, but there is no excuse for coming back to Australia and then doing the counting yourself. His remark “I’ve got a field marshal’s baton in the backpack,” Mr Rudd said. “It’s just that the season is not right to take it out,” will haunt him. It undermines his statement of support for Beazley because it says “I am only with you as long as I don’t have the numbers.” It undermines his own position because it says “All I am interested in is being Prime Minister”. Rudd, a pracitising Anglican, should know that “he would be first shall be last”. It’s certainly the way electors tend to judge politicians.
Gillard is in even a worse position. Not only can’t she count, but she doesn’t even have a significant track record. Much of the commentary about her candidacy has centred on whether a childless unmarried woman from the left is electable as Prime Minister. This has been criticised as being a bigotted and parochial criticism. Instead it is just nonsense. For the right unmarried childless left-wing woman, these would not be issues. There would be other things to write about, such as her past achievements – her successful advocacies and manouevrings. That Gillard is not the right woman is demonstrated by the fact that apart from the personal, the only policy position she has held that the media think worth commenting on is Medicare Gold!
As Kevin Rudd told The Age:

“We need to patch this up straight away in order to lift ourselves out of the muck and become a viable alternative government for this country,” he said, echoing a familiar chorus since Labor lost the October 2004 election. “This country deserves better than we are currently delivering.”

Unfortunately, at this rate they are going to have to bring in contract cleaners from outside because all of the kids are making a mess of the inside.

Posted by Graham at 2:11 pm | Comments (7) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Can agree that Gillard is not the right gal, but don’t for a second think that even if she well noted in policy the media would cease raising her marital and childless status.
    Since when did politicians have that sort of control of how they perceived or represented?
    Condoleezza Rice has also had her marital situation discussed, sometimes in a really prurient fashion.

    Comment by Darlene — January 26, 2005 @ 6:54 pm

  2. I disagree. Latham would always have lost the last election because he believed his own press. He became a man-island and for any leader that is disasterous. Labor has now essentially resigned itself to two more terms in the political wilderness by allowing Beazley to resume the leadership. Personally, I feel this is the only tactic to play right now, as there are far too many ‘old guard’ members still stirring the pot. They have to go, and by the look of the number crunching of this week, only time will do that.

    Comment by Niall — January 27, 2005 @ 6:48 am

  3. 10 years ago yesterday, alexander downer stood down as the leader of the hapless liberal party, and John howard took over once again for his 3rd go.
    Sounds similar to beazley?

    Comment by alphacoward — January 27, 2005 @ 9:06 am

  4. Now that leadership is settled for the next four years, lets hope labour moves on to address the crucial issues of policy renewal and internal reformation. The hard decisions cannot be ignored any longer. The party structure is a creature of the 1930,s and is reflected in both the quality of candidates and some of the policies which are totally out of step with Modern Australia. I am sorry but this has to be said, if we are to ever see a reformist Government in Australia in our life time. Australia will otherwise drift into a U.S. type social and economic model. Kim Beazley has the manditate and opportunity to return labour to relevence and hopefully Government.

    Comment by brian mcmahon — January 27, 2005 @ 11:48 am

  5. Darlene,
    Why don’t we test my thesis. You’re a journalist and you’re covering Julia’s run – what achievements do you talk about?

    Comment by Graham Young — January 27, 2005 @ 12:55 pm

  6. Don’t dispute your point, Graham, but still think they’d manage to get in a bit about her marital status and breeding history.
    I mentioned Ms Rice who is a formidable women, and she still gets that kind of crap.
    As I said, I don’t think Gillard was right for the job.

    Comment by Darlene — January 27, 2005 @ 6:52 pm

  7. Amen to that Graham, couldn’t have read it better from somebody else.
    My pic is Peter Garret for PM, Lindsay Tanner for Deputy, Turnbull for opposition leader (how can you stop him?) and Petro Gergio for deputy liberal leader.
    Two Sydney icons for leaders and two inner city Melbourne left-wing MPs for deputies.

    Comment by Benno — January 31, 2005 @ 9:30 pm

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