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The 'Mark Latham Handicap': WA's election race

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Thursday, 13 January 2005

In an extraordinary new development in Mark Latham’s implosion as Labor leader, his office is now refusing to comment on where he is, what he is doing (beyond resting) and exactly when he will resurface for the nation to see him.

Apparently he will be making a statement before the close of this week, but when nobody knows. With all the build up surrounding his public unveiling, unless tightly controlled by his minders, it will be a feeding frenzy for the press gallery. And the media stories speculating as to his political future will continue for days if not weeks and months afterwards.

This has got to be the worst possible start to 2005 Latham could have had, and it is not helping WA Premier Gallop one little bit as he gears up for a state election likely next month.


Geoff Gallop is planning a big announcement on Friday at the WA Media Club. With the Asian tsunami no longer taking up all the headlines, Gallop had hoped to use Friday’s lunch to kick-start his re-election campaign. However if Mark Latham fronts the cameras around the same time, Gallop will lose much needed media traction in the west, the only constituency that matters to him.

This is just another post election example of Latham not thinking politically, not consulting his party colleagues, and not adding value to a Labor Party well and truly ready to move on from the uncertainty his leadership generates (even if they don’t publicly acknowledge it yet). It is also reflective of Latham’s lack of concern about WA, and his WA party colleagues in particular. Where John Howard visited the west half a dozen times in the lead up to polling day on October 9 last year, Mark Latham didn’t prioritise the state at all, instead putting his faith in a localised campaign by former party leader and WA born and bred Kim Beazley. West Australians saw through this cynical ploy, remembering it was Latham that beat Beazley for the party leadership in December 2003, strengthening the Coalitions hold on its marginal seats in the west, delivering it a further two and nearly delivering two more on top of that. In short Labor’s federal performance in the west left it oh so much further away from the clutches of government.

Now with a state election in the air, not unsurprisingly Opposition Leader Colin Barnett is hankering for as many westward trips by John Howard as he can get, while Gallop would rather Latham considered extending his January holiday into the following month as well. Isn’t politics ironic? Labor needed more of Mark Latham in the west to bolster its marginal seat chances at the federal election, however at the coming state poll an injection of Latham would likely cripple its campaign.

For Labor’s sake it has to hope this irony is not lost on voters. If, as Barnett hopes, the Prime Minister’s presence on the campaign helps the Coalition, Gallop’s narrow majority may not be enough to insulate his government from defeat. Remember, if Labor loses less than a handful of state seats it loses its controlling majority to govern.

But historically voters have been more savvy than to crudely import federal politicking into the state arena. One only needs to look at the existing status of federal and state legislatures across the country at the moment. While the Coalition controls the federal political scene, it is Labor in control of every state and territory. In fact the WA election is widely regarded as the Liberal’s best chance at a state win anywhere in the country for some time to come. So it may be that despite Howard’s federal success, his presence reminds voters of the value in mixing their major party representation between state and federal.

The value of popular and successful federal colleagues to a state campaign is more vested in their fundraising capabilities. Where business leaders and party faithful are unlikely to be inspired by Mark Latham’s appearance, Liberals are buoyed by a prime ministerial showing in the west. In a modern era of substantial campaign financing this value is important, but it is a behind the scenes value nevertheless.


Mark Latham is a handicap for Labor, there is no doubt about that. Equally John Howard is a plus for the Liberals, again no doubt about that. But they are not election winning or losing formulas in and of themselves. And they are not necessarily public pillars of building success either. As the state campaign hots up voters minds will increasingly focus on their state options, and federal leaders will play little if any role in this dynamic. The issue for Labor is will Mark Latham’s continued imploding cost it the valuable airtime it needs to turn the polls around?

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About the Author

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

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