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Turning away from the 'Third Way' was Latham's undoing

By Vern Hughes - posted Friday, 24 December 2004


In the late 1990s, Mark Latham seemed a rarity in Australian politics - a politician, who read widely, wrote prolifically, and vented opinions outside his party’s canon of approved thoughts.

His themes in the years from 1997 to 2002 were the right themes for Australia - deficiencies in public and private governance; the relationships between citizens (and between citizens and governments); our declining stocks of social capital; the capture of our key institutions by “insiders”; and the pervasiveness of disenchantment as our number one political song.

These themes in the UK and North America in the 1990s were linked with the “Third Way” debate. In Australia, that debate never got off the ground. Mark Latham was the only federal politician prepared to welcome the discussion.

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Both left and right mocked these themes. They preferred set-piece battles over familiar territory (symbolic reconciliation, privatisation of Telstra, Medicare) rather than the unfamiliar territory of community engagement and social regeneration.

And then a curious thing happened. Drawn to his party’s leadership like a bear to a honeypot, Mark Latham found himself leading a party that remained untouched by the debate to which he’d devoted his preceding years. Instead of the new “Third Way” politics of partnership and reconnection, Latham’s party remained stuck in a 19th century mould of “statism, unionism, and class”, as he described it in 2001. It was never going to work.

The depth of the Latham tragedy can be best seen by retrieving some of his best thinking, offered in a speech to a “Third Way” conference organised by the University of New South Wales Centre for Applied Economic Research in 2001. In defining the “Third Way”, Latham said:

This is best demonstrated through a series of practical examples:

  • In schools policy, Left-wing politics has tried to achieve its goals through the creation of large education departments, while Right-wing politics has emphasised the need for individualised vouchers. A “Third Way” solution is to encourage parents to run community or charter schools. 
  • In the current school funding debate in Australia , the government sector has been pitted against the non-government sector, a situation in which schools are fighting schools. A “Third Way” solution is to require the top non-government schools to assist struggling government schools - a mentoring plan that builds bridges and collaboration across the school sectors.
  • In the welfare debate, the Left has advocated large increases in government spending, while the Right has emphasised the need for personal motivation and responsibility. A “Third Way” solution is to support the work of social entrepreneurs: Innovative projects that create new social and economic partnerships in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
  • In the past, Left-wing politics has been hostile to the free market system, while the Right has strongly supported the profit motive. The “Third Way”, by contrast, sees the reform of capitalism as an ethical question. It wants the corporate sector to meet its proper social responsibilities, reconnecting global economics with local communities. 
  • Finally, in the law and order debate, both sides of Australian politics have engaged in a bidding war for tougher sentencing laws. Our State election campaigns have become a contest to build more prisons and to put more people in gaol. A “Third Way” solution is to focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice programs, making offenders face up to the social consequences of their crimes.

These directions, however, are anathema to Labor, and Latham as party leader quickly jettisoned anything that resembled “Third Way” thinking and anchored himself in the familiarity of Labor statism. With feet of lead, the once quick-footed Latham became a sitting target. Schools policy stood under a teacher union veto. Health policy was locked away in the old “let the government foot the bill” mindset. Prevented by Labor’s chieftains from linking social policy to an empowerment agenda, Latham was reduced to campaigning on reading to kids, and some dental work for pensioners.

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Latham’s electoral humiliation became a matter of when, not if. Mercifully, an October 9 election allowed for a relatively early preparation of the coffin.

None of this is to suggest that Latham’s “Third Way” ideas were not welcome. Many thoughtful Australians across the political spectrum welcomed this brief period of freshness and real debate. But the possibility that Labor might be a vehicle for such ideas was put beyond all doubt by the Latham leadership experiment.

Self-help, empowerment and mutuality remain the keys to a renovation of Australian politics and society. Leadership and organisation have been the missing ingredients, but the formation of People Power as a national political movement in 2004 promises to rectify that long-time deficiency.

The core dynamic in the new politics is the devolution of power and responsibility to individuals, families and communities and the institutions of civil society. Mark Latham in his optimistic period was fond of quoting Tom Bentley of the UK’s Demos Foundation:

Today’s politicians are trapped in a contest between two inherently limited models of policy delivery. The Left offers the promise of strong public services, developed and managed by a strong political centre, using new technology to individualise the services each citizen draws upon. The Right, meanwhile, continues to offer the chimera of a minimal state, with social need met by private action. The striking fact is that both models continue with the myth that government can deliver on behalf of the people it serves. The truth, of course, is that politics cannot change society unless it can persuade people to change the way they themselves behave. In other words, we must now move towards grown-up government - institutions which respect the intelligence and self-determination of individuals, but which expect people to take active responsibility for producing collective solutions.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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