A column in the most recent The Sunday Age by the doyen of Canberra political journalists, Michelle Grattan, contained this extraordinary passage:
On a white board in the office of one of Latham's advisers is the maxim "Never think in specific policies. Think in themes and values". The adviser put it up there after Latham mused one day that this was the rule book of the "third way" or "new politics"…
What they mean is that a successful political strategy can't be a series of one-dimensional policy announcements; specific policies are vital but in a sense secondary. They must mesh into a coherent story of themes and messages about the leader and what he wants to do. For example Labor's $80 million Read Aloud Australia program is about more than educating kids. It's part of defining the Latham persona, and reinforcing that he is committed to certain values.
Latham has half-a-dozen themes: the ladder of opportunity, social responsibility, economic reform, national security, restoring communities, and the "new politics".
Michelle Grattan could never be called naïve or partisan. But she seems to have left her "corporate knowledge" of Australian politics at the door of Mr Latham’s office.
Latham's strategy of "themes and messages" being primary and policies secondary is simply a replica of John Howard's strategy in the lead-up to the 1996 election. Howard, like Latham now, was gun-shy about putting out comprehensive policies as Opposition leader because of what had happened to John Hewson in 1993. Hewson, it will be recalled, had the intellectual and personal integrity to put the most comprehensive package ever assembled by an opposition leader in Australia - Fightback! That integrity cost him the election and since then no opposition leader does anymore than Latham is doing now.
To return to Howard. Grattan and her colleagues, who are now starry-eyed about Mr Latham, will surely recall John Howard's series of "headland" speeches in 1995. One of these, delivered on 6 June that year, was a classic example of the "themes and values" strategy that Latham and his "new politics" disciples are claming as unique in Australian politics.
There was, according to Mr Howard in this "headland speech" entitled, The Role of Government: A Modern Liberal Approach
"…a frustrated mainstream in Australia today which sees government decisions increasingly driven by the noisy, self-interested clamour of powerful vested interests with scant regard for the national interest.
The power of one mainstream has been diminished by this government's reactions to the force of a few interest groups.
Many Australians in the mainstream feel utterly powerless to compete with such groups, who seem to have the ear completely of the government on major issues.
This bureaucracy of the new class is a world apart from the myriad of spontaneous, community-based organisations which have been part and parcel of the Australian mainstream for decades.