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Latham: False hero flopped at poll vault

By Peter Brent - posted Tuesday, 18 January 2005

If you were Mark Latham, you'd probably stay indoors too. As if Saturday's papers weren't bad enough, two recently published opinion polls showed federal Labor at dire levels of support, with Kim Beazley on the rise.

Yet just six months ago the muscular new leader was gloriously "cutting through", taking the fight to John Howard and forcing government flip-flops. How did it get to this - from pop stardom to calling the police on nosey journalists?

On a mundane level, Latham is where he is today because of last October's election result - and not just because Labor lost. If he had eaten at all into Howard's majority, he and his leadership would have been vindicated. He would be the Labor hero who single-handedly wrested his party back into contention, giving Howard a run for his money, and prepared for victory in 2007. Such a leader would be indulged all manner of eccentricities and self-centredness.


But he took his party backwards, and from that moment it's likely he was doomed. Like John Hewson in 1993, once the bubble burst he was instantaneously a big-L loser and the rapid downward trajectory began.

On Friday January 14, 2005, The Australian ran amusing excerpts from some of the more over-the-top pronouncements by several high-profile journalists during 2004. There is no doubt the political class got carried away with the Werriwa Warrior, announcing the reinvention of politics as we know it, something called triangulation, the triumph of "the third way".

Paul Keating used to explain to journalists that success lay in psychological dominance in parliament. If you believe that kind of claptrap, you would expect a prime ministerial backdown on politicians' superannuation to miraculously translate into votes for the Labor Party. But life isn't like that, and nor do concepts such as "seizing the agenda" and "gaining momentum" mean much.

Many journalists swallowed the Latham juggernaut because they believe what they write. To them, politics is front row in the Coliseum, holding up scorecards. They favour the big narrative, the fight to the death, and Latham embodied all these fantasies. He was so "good" - had he not wrongfooted Howard? - that, if he didn't win, well, he would certainly come close.

But swinging voters in marginal seats vote for other reasons - not because you "deserve" it. Above all, they are notoriously scared of risk.

A myth to emerge from the election is that Labor support collapsed during the last week, when the forest policy was announced. If it did, the published polls didn't show it; each was quite consistent from the previous weekend to polling day.


In fact, specific policies had little to do with the result - they rarely do. Political promises have been so debased over the decades that no one takes them seriously nor bats an eyelid when they're broken. Voters react to impressions based on what the candidate is "about".

Latham crashed for reasons integral to his personality. For starters, he was just too scary. He has been telling us for years that the only person he takes advice from is himself. That's a worry. He thought he could leave the sermons on "hate" and class and name-calling of the US President behind, but of course these were integral to his public persona. Being mad, bad and dangerous to know is fine for a PM, but Opposition leaders must above all show they are safe.

Latham also failed in product differentiation. Like all Labor leaders back to Bill Hayden, Latham is in the middle ground of Australian politics. His capitulation to the Howard view of mainstream Australia, for example on immigration and the Redfern riots, was hailed as political genius - but in reality it was counterproductive, simply boosting the incumbent.

His days are now surely numbered, but Latham was an unusual political beast. He entertained. He attracted the highest approval ratings in Australian history for an Opposition leader. Unlike Alexander Downer a decade ago, he didn't implode; he wasn't gaffe-prone. His conservative instincts were, by and large, in the mainstream, and his psychological toughness could be seen in parliament as well as in his impressive performance in the election debate.

But he did very poorly at the ballot box - probably worse than Simon Crean would have - because most people just couldn't vote for him. You could say he got everything about the job right except that. 

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First published in The Australian and on January 17, 2005.

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About the Author

Peter Brent is publisher of, a website devoted to Australian politics. He is also a PhD student at the Research School of Social Sciences, ANU. He is a member of the Australian National University's Democratic Audit of Australia.

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