The ALP, under new leader Mark Latham, is now set to win the next federal election. Only two circumstances can bring this scenario undone: Mark Latham cracks under extreme pressure, or, and much more likely, some security-related event occurs which John Howard exploits to revitalise his big fear campaign. But neither is likely, and it is my view a rejuvenated ALP can start planning seriously for government.
Choosing Latham as new ALP leader was a gamble, but one that so far looks like paying off. His intelligence, energy and combativeness were never in doubt, but there were concerns about his stability and capacity to lead. In the past he has been a fiery individualist in a party that places solidarity over ability, and he has made his share of mistakes. The media early identified his tendency to be different, and sometimes overly abrasive, and labelled him a ‘maverick’. He has had to, and must continue to, live down this reputation both within the ALP and generally.
Leadership, in what have been increasingly dire times for the ALP, was always going to make or break Latham the politician. The combination of a certain amount of personal volatility mixed with a package of ideas put forward in his writings that fly in the face of much of traditional Labor ideology were a potential recipe for disaster. Alternatively, Latham’s obvious directness, ability to think for himself and a willingness to learn were attributes that could make a genuinely able leader, even if he was learning on the job.
So far, the second set of qualities seems to be ascendant, and so Latham is enjoying good press and polls. And I see no reason why Latham should crack under pressure. There are some messy things in his past, and as he keeps harking on his own personal history he is open to criticism. But there is a tendency to forgive mistakes by the young in most societies, and in this country with its traditional fondness for the larrikin, I suspect Latham cannot be too badly hurt as long as he stays honest.
As for political pressure, some think his past productivity in presenting newish, sometimes contradictory ideas is now a tendency that the Liberals can harp on. I think there are two reasons why Latham is not threatened greatly by this: First, as leader Latham must play the roll of decision maker and conciliator of different viewpoints, as opposed to pursuing the naked partisanship of the up-and-comer. So he simply cannot maintain all the opinions he expressed in his books; the burden of leadership will itself force him to hone his core ideas to develop consistency and coherence. Secondly, the conservative politicians never present credible, substantive arguments in the sustained way Latham has. Thus, Latham’s response could be that made but all creators to all critics – 'let’s see you do better'.
So, I think the chances of Mark Latham self-destructing and leaving Labor bereft of credible leadership is negligible, although no doubt he will be fully tested by one of the least scrupulous governments in living memory.
So what about some event somewhere in the world cranking up the terrorism issue or in some other way highlighting national security, supposedly Labor’s great weakness?
The possibility of something occurring is of course unpredictable, but we must assume that given the enormous time, energy and resources dedicated to all these interrelated matters, the chances of another 911 or Tampa must be much less than they were. But there is another factor at work here: my view is that Howard (along with Blair and Bush) has lost enormous credibility over the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which were the formal reason why we participated in an illegal war. For Howard, this perception of dishonesty adds to a history of manifest dishonesty in relation to issues like the GST, Medicare, the children overboard affair and his failure to maintain ministerial standards. Howard’s honesty is definitely an election issue.
As such, even if something dramatic were to occur, the electorate and perhaps even the media would not be so quick to accept his authority, and return to the unquestioning servility of the last few years.
So I do not think Latham and the ALP are particularly vulnerable. But why will they win the next election? Mostly, because the electorate is tired of feeling alone and being afraid. Howard’s individualist mindset makes us all alone, which is tolerable for a while if the material trends are in our favour. But we are all social beings and in the end we want help when he are sick, education when we are young, assistance when we are old, and a hand up when we are in trouble. So we have created various social institutions to do this, institutions that Howard has steadily eroded in favour of his simplistic code, ‘just make money and spend it on yourself’.
This worldview is also at the heart of Howard’s foreign policy, in terms of both economics and security. He wants a global economy that has the same individualistic principles underlying it, and that pays minimal attention to the social, political, health or environmental cost of unfettered economic growth. In terms of national security he has rejected the institutions of international arbitration, just as he has rejected the national institutions intended to ameliorate socio-economic injustice. Instead, he has placed Australia more and more into the hands of the most doctrinaire US administration in modern times (and one that is also likely to go at the next election).
Australia is rich, but it is also scared, miserable and mean. Latham says we can stay rich, and we can also hold our heads up again as well.
Even the mass media will respond to this new vision, as it did to Whitlam when he did something similar three decades ago. As then, politics will experience a sea change and Labor will win the election. And then we will see how Latham handles the new pressures of national leadership, and how well the ALP itself manages government.
John Howard was always a poor choice as national leader, given a chance to promote his narrow vision by global changes and an inept ALP leadership. Once a genuine alternative arose, he was always in trouble because people get tired of being mean and afraid, and of being so much less than they could be. In the solitude of the polling booth, it is this feeling that will make enough people change their vote to ensure generational change where it most counts.