June 09, 2004 | Graham

Burnt by Oils.

Appointing front man of apocalyptic rock group Midnight Oil as the new member for the safe Labor seat of Kingsford Smith is Mark Latham’s biggest mistake to date. It reinforces perceptions that Latham represents style over substance; reeks with the smell of un-democratic “fixing” that characterizes NSW Labor politics; suggests Latham is arrogant and just another “whatever it takes” politician; won’t improve Labor’s share of the Green vote; and will be a continuing, “off-message” distraction from the business of winning the next election.
Critics of Latham claim that instead of having an education policy, he has a “reading to kids” policy. That instead of having an unemployment strategy, he has a “learning or earning” slogan. Once they find their range on this issue, they will surely say, and with justification, that instead of having an environmental policy he has Peter Garrett. But while Garrett will be iconic the real policy is unlikely to change and won’t be much different from the Coalition’s. As a result the substance of the symbolic will be the shambolic (and in this instance the root of the word can be either “sham” or “shambles” – take your pick).
Critics of the NSW Labor Party see it as grubby and undemocratic. Laurie Brereton, the current member for the seat, was part of the inner Sussex Street group, but fell out with them. Some are suggesting that his inopportune retirement and the insertion of Garrett into the seat over the heads of Sussex Street’s favoured local candidate(s) is revenge for the disendorsement of his sister Dierdre Grusovin from the seat of Heffron. Maybe it is, but voters across the country won’t care who is being done over, they will just see it as part of the general malaise infecting NSW Labor. That is why voters turned against them in their manipulation of the Sydney City Council electoral boundaries and handed control of the city to Clover Moore. A recent lesson that Labor seems to have forgotten.
The continuing hubbub from rank and file members in the seat, reinforced by long standing members of the party like “Johnno” Johnson and now Barry Cohen undercut the folksy, man of the people image that Latham has been cultivating. Branch members in this seat are the people of middle Australia that he has been courting in townhall meetings across the country. They now see some of their own being “dudded” for a multi-millionaire rock star. Latham, the servant of the people is in danger of transmogrifying into a Graham Richardson clone, prepared to walk over whoever he needs to so as to gain an advantage.
Latham would undoubtedly say he is trying to recruit star quality candidates to the party. Perhaps. If a candidate really is star quality and has what it takes as a politician, rather than whatever it is that they do in their day job, then they will get in and do what is required to win the preselection. Malcolm Turnbull is an example of a star candidate who knew what he had to do, and did it. Cheryl Kernot should have taught Labor that giving stars the inside running doesn’t necessarily help the party’s vote. At least with Kernot, and to her very public disgust, they forced her to run for a marginal seat. In this case they’ve sent the limousine around for Garrett.
And just as Richardson’s much praised green preference strategy probably did nothing to increase Labor’s share of the vote (see Barry Cohen on this issue here), neither will this one. Greens voters in the lower house will overwhelming preference Labor before Liberal, they always have and always will. So, in the lower house Latham is paying a high price for nothing. In the upper house it may well be a different story. Bob Brown should be able to use Peter Garrett as a reference point for just how far short of Greens voters’ expectations Labor’s environmental policy falls. That may actually decrease the Labor vote in the Senate in favour of the Greens.
Which points to the other major error which this decision contains. Election campaigns are an extended debate between leaders. The less there is of other front-bench spokesmen the better, because the more people speak on a topic, the greater the chances of an inadvertent disagreement that can be exploited by your opponents. In this election campaign Labor should have only one star – Latham. But that is not how the media will play it. When it comes to environmental issues (and probably also issues of foreign affairs) they will want to know what Garrett thinks. At the moment Garrett is avoiding any media problems by staying silent, but there is a trap in playing the trappist – his silence will become the issue. This has echoes of the Hanson effect in the 1998 Queensland election where celebrity hijacked the election campaign and Labor surfed ahead of the Government who were caught in the dirty air that Hanson created.
Latham has done well to date with his policy of “triangulation”, but in this case he appears to have fallen on one of the apexes of his triangle. Doing things outside the square and confusing your opponents is one thing, but confounding yourself is an entirely different thing.

Posted by Graham at 11:26 am | Comments Off on Burnt by Oils. |
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