Not so long ago, a bright young politician was seeking the highest office in his country. He had a major political weakness: he had a different religion to the majority of voters. His pollsters, minders and spin-doctors - including his brother - were wary of the issue in the campaign and favoured silence amongst most audiences. After all it was a perceived weakness, and his opponent was already campaigning on the barely subliminal slogan “give me that old time religion”.
Instead the candidate went on the offensive. Before hostile audiences he insisted on a “separation of church and state that is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners how to vote”. The candidate, you might have guessed, was John F Kennedy. Candour, courage and charisma turned a weakness into a strength overnight.
Of course knowing when to confront one’s own weaknesses - one’s opponent’s strength - requires fine judgement. Polling and focus groups can only tell you how the world is, not how or whether you can change it. Sometimes, as with Kennedy, it turns out that at some deeper level the population is ready for change - though it still might take the courage of the child pointing out the obvious in the story about the Emperor's new clothes. Sometimes you might have to take some heat before you win the day. On other occasions it will turn out that your efforts will be worse than useless, because they draw attention to your opponent’s strengths. But one thing is clear. If you don’t try you won’t find out - you’ll die wondering.
Mark Latham will die wondering at least about this election. With the polls and focus groups indicating that they were political weaknesses, he was sotto voce on the economy and security. I’ll follow up how Labor might have addressed economic issues in a later article, but lets take a look at security.
Long before the election Latham promised to bring Australia’s troops home from Iraq by Christmas. He wouldn’t back away from that promise (though a more measured statement of intent would have been wiser) but, maddeningly, nor would he defend it. Latham became almost reclusive, turning down one interview after another. Distinctly odd for an Opposition Leader. Odder still was that on several occasions, when he was eventually smoked out - for instance when Howard moved a censure against him in Parliament - Latham performed well enough to neutralise the issue, and perhaps begin turning it to advantage.
The same story has unfolded in the US. Those attacking their opponents’ perceived strengths (and so neutralising them) have won the day. Republicans supporting President George Bush’s re-election went straight for their opponent’s throat funding the ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ to demean Kerry’s heavily decorated war record. They suggested Kerry had misrepresented his record to win his medals. Kerry did not retaliate until the damage had been done.
Indeed, having been somehow browbeaten into the idea that criticising a wartime President was unpatriotic, Kerry stage-managed the Democratic Convention to avoid direct attacks on the President. The Republicans issued “flip flop” thongs to all their delegates and had a fine old time rubbishing Kerry. Having thrown off the intimidation and finally decided “no more Mr. Nice Guy”, Kerry is once again a contender.
The same pattern was on show here. As Latham was forced to discuss security in the election debate, the worm smiled down upon him from dizzying heights as he went on the attack. Then, as before, all went quiet again. Latham retreated into old style campaigning: trees were hugged, oldies honoured, wallets opened. Squeezes were eased. But, for as long as the Coalition could claim victory by default on security and the economy, votes were lost.
The ALP should have attacked Howard’s past record on Iraq. And for the future it could have made a solemn pledge never to send troops into combat overseas without a majority vote of both houses. How can committing Australian troops abroad amidst division about it at home promote national security?
No ALP government in history would have had its style cramped by that pledge, though such a policy might have put it on firmer ground when it tried to keep our troops out of the two least successful engagements since Gallipoli: Vietnam and Iraq. Once on the front foot, Latham might have pressed his case, asking whether the Government would join Labor in promising not to send troops to other countries - like Iran and Syria - without bi-partisan support: a scare campaign of his own no less.
And John Kerry is now getting traction on another issue - skyrocketing petrol prices. Of course George Bush responds that he doesn’t set the world oil price. John Howard would have said the same. It’s a fair point. But Iraqi oil production has collapsed since the invasion. How convenient for opponents of amateurish adventurism in Iraq that it hit our hip pockets so quickly. The world is not usually so kind to commonsense. A pity the ALP was too intimidated to make the case.
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