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Labor's continued 'me-tooism' gives false hope of a real alternative

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 20 January 2004

The election of Mark Latham to the federal ALP leadership has ensured that the 2004 election will offer a choice between either full-strength John Howard or Howard light. Latham’s ALP offers no real policy alternative to the conservatism of the Liberal Party.

If you want evidence of this, you need look no further than the report of an interview with senior ALP front-bencher Robert McClelland, published in the newspaper of choice for conservatives these days, The Australian.

McClelland’s intention is clearly to ensure that the ALP is not a target for Liberal barbs on being “soft” on the issues of terrorism and security. To that end, McClelland said, “Some of the relatively narrow membership base that we have in the party is refusing to acknowledge the legitimate security concerns and anxiety that working Australians have”.


McClelland heaped praise on Attorney-General Philip Ruddock for his handling of the policy debate on executive proscription of organisations, and noted that the ALP supported the Howard government’s efforts in this area. McClelland was quoted in the interview as saying: “We are in discussions with the Government aimed at developing an executive proscription model with adequate safeguards.” The tragedy of McClelland’s position is that he and his colleagues are prepared to jettison important principles of individual liberty, the role of the Parliament in scrutinising the executive, and healthy and necessary scepticism about government’s reach for more powers to control organisations and individuals.

These principles are as important to “working Australians” – code for voters in the western suburbs of Sydney and south-east Queensland, areas where Labor must do well if it is to win government – as to anyone else who lives in this country.

McClelland's pathetic “me-tooism” smacks of Labor’s appalling inability to defend the human rights of asylum-seekers in the lead-up to the 2001 election. The party seems to have learnt nothing from that experience.

Mind you, McClelland’s cosying up to the conservatives on matters of civil liberties and pandering to marginal-seat voters’ insecurity reflects Mark Latham’s posture on a range of policy fronts.

Those who believe that Latham is seeking to carve out a serious policy alternative to John Howard are simply wrong. Latham has the outlook and philosophical underpinnings of a conservative.

Here’s a good example. On August 18 2000, Latham wrote in a Sydney tabloid newspaper that he wanted "the churches to receive more public money and to do more of their healing work. When it comes to getting rid of poverty, I’m happy to do whatever it takes".


In other words, Latham would be happy to go down the path of Bush/Howard-style welfare “reform” that allows church organisations to impose their own value systems on the provision of welfare and to punish those who step outside that framework. Latham is also supportive of middle-class tax cuts – on this he and the Howard government sing in unison.

Next, here’s Latham writing in Melbourne’s The Age on February 9 last year about asylum-seekers in detention: “Groups like Labor for Refugees look at atrocities such as the Woomera riots or the payment of money to people smugglers and declare ‘the people who did this need help’. The first priority of a just society is to help needy people within the collective boundaries of the law”.

This, of course, is the view of former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. It is a view totally lacking in compassion or empathy.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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