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Latham and the new politics of straight talking

By Bob McMullan - posted Monday, 6 September 2004

This election hangs in the balance. It will be won or lost during the campaign. That has been the case since March this year. It remains the case.

Elections are complex things at one level. More than 12 million Australians vote and they vote for a wide variety of reasons -maybe a million different reasons. But at another level, election contests are quite simple. There is usually a defining question at the centre of them. It looks as though this election will be like that.

At its core, the election comes down to this: Can a Prime Minister who has run out of ideas and damaged his credibility convince Australians that a change is too risky? Or can a fresh new plain-speaking Leader of the Opposition convince people that he can deliver his new ideas and the answers to the issues of their everyday lives?


The key issues in this contest are important in themselves. Who can rescue Medicare? Who is best to restore quality in all our schools and opportunity at TAFE and university?

But they also resonate as part of the essential contest between freshness and risk. It is part of the fundamental contest between progressives and conservatives throughout history. It is the contest between hope and fear.

Mark Latham spoke at his first press conference as Leader of the Opposition about the ladder of opportunity. It struck a chord then. And it has ever since. Australians realise that opportunity is what is missing in what the Howard Government offers Australians. We can never be the great nation we aspire to be unless every Australian has the opportunity to turn their ability into productive activity. Providing and promoting opportunity for all Australians is the big difference between Mark Latham’s positive program and the excessively negative approach of John Howard.

What was the last positive new idea that John Howard had? I ask that question often at public meetings. No one can think of anything - unless they think that the GST was a positive. And that was policy in 1998! When you think of the big picture issues of the election, you realise the significance of the collapse of John Howard’s credibility.

It is important for three reasons. In a democracy, citizens should be able to trust the word of their elected leader. More immediately, the credibility gap impairs John Howard’s capacity to make the “risk” argument. As he looks more evasive and less reliable, the safety/risk equation moves in Mark Latham’s favour. But most important of all, the lies about issues that impact on people in their everyday lives are reinforced by the broader credibility and trust arguments.

The most potent sign of deceit is in the area of educational opportunity. John Howard said in October 1999, “I can guarantee we’re not going to have $100,000 university degree courses”. This is a hollow promise indeed to young Australians today as they confront 16 different degrees that cost at least $100,000. Under John Howard, opportunity only knocks if you can pay top dollar.


Then look too at the Coalition’s neglect of Medicare and public health. They have sat and watched bulk billing decline and have created a massive medical workforce shortage that has robbed communities of their doctors and nurses.

These are not boring stories about the past. This is the stuff families have to face as they raise their kids, live their lives, and take care of their ageing parents. This matters. And if John Howard can’t be trusted on the vital issues of health and education, Australians will be reluctant to give him their vote.

The contrast between the “new politics” style of plain-speaking and John Howard’s old-fashioned political speak is particularly noticed by younger Australians. This may explain why Mark Latham receives very strong support from young people. Newspoll shows Labor with 57 per cent support among 18-34 year olds, with even higher support among Australians under 25.

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This article was first published in The Australian Mon 30 August 2004

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About the Author

Bob McMullan is the Shadow Minister for Finance and Small Business and Member for Fraser.

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