As a Liberal Party member, I have been very worried by the Latham ascendancy over the past six months. The issues that have bothered me in particular are his subscription to the valueless but easily marketable Third Way politics of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and his hero-worship of the disastrous Gough Whitlam. But most notably, his marketability as the first political leader in Australia around which a legend can be built. The most poignant example being his continual reference to his squalid up-bringing and how he alone pulled himself out of it.
Lately, I have become less worried. First, the thing about Mark Latham is that he is the only issue for the Labor Party. This is fine in the honeymoon period but in the heat of an election (particularly an Australian one) making yourself the issue is a recipe for disaster.
Second, and more immediately, there is the Peter Garrett issue. Peter Garrett is a motif for why the Labor Party is neither ready nor headed for government this year. His elevation in spectacular style to pre-selection for a safe Labor seat in New South Wales is emblematic of a party concerned more with winning than doing something once it wins.
Throughout the nadir of federal Liberal politics that was the 1980s, the Liberal Party became obsessed with finding messiahs to lead it out of the wilderness. Faced with the seemingly unmoveable, incredibly popular Bob Hawke, the Liberals looked constantly for someone to counter him. At the same time, the Party was in a state of holy war, with the agents of the HR Nicholls Society trying to purge the Party of "wets" and the wets often eager to be the victims of such a purge, valuing martyrdom over effectiveness.
The Labor Party is not apparently as hopelessly divided but it still looks for the quick fix. Why that is so, is anyone's guess. Consider these things:
- Garrett has no history in the Labor Party;
- Garrett has strongly held views; and
- Garrett has never had to refrain from expressing those views as a matter of party discipline.
Forgive me, but has the Labor Party learned nothing from the Cheryl Kernot episode? What will Peter Garrett do when the Labor Party decides that the union position on forestry is critical to electoral success? What will Peter Garrett do if the Labor Party, having withdrawn troops from Iraq, decides that it cannot further distance the US by signing the Kyoto protocol? What about the first big jobs victory of a Latham government involving mining or car manufacturing? Does Peter Garrett really think Mark Latham is not pragmatic and cynical enough to make decisions like that? Don't bet your good arm on it. He's already wrapped himself in the American flag once.
More importantly, what does Peter Garrett bring to the Labor Party? Which voters are going to vote for the Labor Party who wouldn't already have voted for it? Perversely, what might happen is that people who might otherwise have voted for the Greens may vote Labor, delivering an outcome John Howard and the Liberal Party would love: destruction or diminution of the Greens with no net increase in the Labor vote.
The notion of political parties concerned more with celebrities and trite utterances than real policy is less credible in Australia than in the American and British electorates. The party that concerns itself with finding a messiah is more concerned with winning than using the victory. Voters can see that.
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