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Look a little bit closer: Mark Latham could be Australia's Bill Clinton

By Adam Craig - posted Monday, 26 July 2004

Mark Latham is clearly well-versed in the Bill Clinton technique. By this, I refer not to policies but to style. However, the media's comprehension of Latham's approach is simplistic to the extent that it seems the majority of the media's political commentators have done little more than read the blurbs on books written about Clinton.

It might be true to say that Latham and Clinton, along with the Tony Blair of yesteryear and Paul Keating, can be loosely described as "third way" politicians. Each has used traditionally left-wing parties as vehicles to spruik centrist policies that appeal, paradoxically, to both the liberal and conservative streaks inherent in most people. That is, they recognise that there are no true conservatives and no true liberals - we are all mixtures of both. However, while a great deal has been made of the new left agenda in recent times, it is on the issue of style that Latham and Clinton are most similar.

Style, as a concept, is difficult to pin down because it is somewhat intangible. In essence, it refers to the way a politician presents him or herself, not what he or she presents.


Clinton's approach to dealing with the media spawned a vast array of academic research, the bulk of which revealed that Clinton spent very little time answering questions posed by journalists; yet he managed to become a ubiquitous, saxophone-playing feature in the media. He spent very little time outlining his policies to the American people but everyone knew he would make welfare recipients take responsibility for their lives.

This is because Clinton spoke over the media. Imagine a roomful of people in which everyone politely listens to one another without interrupting - well, Clinton was standing on the roof of the building, megaphone in hand. Clinton was on entertainment programs and talkback radio where the interviews were soft, or any old punter off the street, in awe of speaking to him, asked the questions. He also assembled rooms full of children to ask questions, and spoke in every American town hall (though I think he might have missed one in Alaska!). And get this - the cameras dutifully filmed him in these situations irrespective of whether journalists engaged with him because they needed footage of the man who would-be/was president.

Similarly, Latham has given up talking to journalists. When Sunday's Ross Coulthart sought an interview with him for "that" profile piece, Latham was dismissive. He likes the town hall scenario, talkback radio, and has appeared on Rove, breakfast radio, and next week, in Inside Sport. "Why?" gasp the elites. In his head, Latham responds: "Nobody, besides the staff of The Age and The Australian, actually watches Sunday because they are nursing hangovers from the night before. But they do watch Rove on Tuesday, listen to breakfast radio, and manage to glance at the news while they prepare dinner". Why answer questions from somebody who knows his subject inside and out? It could make you look the fool.

Of course, when people do little more than glance at the news, the image they see is extremely important. A famous image that set Clinton apart from the then president, George Bush snr, occurred at a presidential debate. A black woman asked the debaters about their experiences with poverty and how they planned to address the issue in office. Bush rattled off some statistics as well as some rhetoric about his knowledge of people and their battles with poverty. Clinton merely stepped towards the woman and encouraged her to tell her story; he interacted and empathised with the woman on her level.

Latham has a similar instinct when he's on the ground in kindergartens, shopping centres and town halls. He gives people the chance to speak to him, tell their stories, and see him exposed. Yet imagine Howard in similar situations. How does the image of Howard among his "battlers" play? He looks uncomfortable and out-of-touch, which probably explains why we haven't seen it to date.

This hasn't been a problem previously because Kim Beazley and Simon Crean have appeared equally uncomfortable in such situations. But what happens when Latham challenges Howard to an election debate, and just happens to suggest a live studio audience, or even an auditorium full of people, each armed with a question or two and a thousand stories?


Of course, this suggests another similarity that Latham shares with Clinton. Clinton was not like other politicians. He was an outsider - a roguish southerner with a hint of mischief in his eye. He didn't want to engage with the Washington elite, he wanted to engage with Americans. He wasn't a dull American politician with stereotypical Boston pedigree but an ordinary - though brilliant - man with a flawed past. And thus he was like every other American baby-boomer. Americans didn't begrudge Clinton his sexual indiscretions because, well, he wasn't the only man to have strayed from his wife (or to have at least thought about it). And he also wasn't the only person who dodged the draft, smoked a joint, and did whatever was necessary to get to the top. Those who criticised Clinton made the fatal mistake of criticising ordinary, everyday Americans.

Similarly, Latham is "everyman". The things that elites find ghastly are considered by the majority to be ordinary. He's divorced - so what? Who cares if he had a buck's night or not - who cares if there's a video? Who hasn't described an authority figure as an "arse-licker" or worse? Who doesn't have a story about a dodgy taxi driver/tradesman/hairdresser or whatever? Big deal if he had a fight with a guy somewhere back there - doesn't that make the other bloke some sort of sook for carrying on in the media? Oh, and his former council colleagues have a problem with him - nobody's universally liked. Latham, thus, has brought a new style to Australian politics while the elites continue to play the same old game.

The thing is, if they dug into the Clinton story, they might just find that there is nothing new about Latham's style, and that by portraying him as an oaf, they are doing him a favour. I'm sure he smiles a self-satisfied grin every night as he glances across at a stack of material on the Clinton presidency. And when the "official" campaign starts - when everything is about the television image - Latham will surge ahead.

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About the Author

Adam Craig holds a BA (Hons) from the University of Melbourne and is presently studying for an LLB at Monash University. He is a member of the ALP.

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