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The Election about … Something

By David Ritter - posted Thursday, 15 November 2007

It was just a matter of time before Mark Latham decided to get involved in the 2007 election and rather predictably he has now done so with all the manner and vitriol of an aggrieved drunken punter denied entry to a club.  Last week Latham came back swinging, denouncing both Rudd and Howard and the election itself as meaningless: a "Seinfeld election" about nothing.  Just as with the Latham Diaries, any acuity in Latham’s analysis was undermined by gratuitous aggression and a failure of gravitas.  The obvious irony of Latham’s tirade is that given his own strange explosiveness, the former Labor leader would himself not be at all out of place in a Seinfeld episode.  Latham’s extreme and self defeating personality would make him very much at home in the company of the Soup Nazi.  Indeed in a nice coincidence, as aficionados will recall, in the final episode of Seinfeld, the plane carrying Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer was forced to make an emergency landing, touching down in a fictional town called, you guessed it… Latham.

According to Latham "if people vote for a change in government on November 24 they will be replacing one conservative administration with another".  The Federal campaign is largely without meaning, he argues, because Australian politics has reached a "zenith of policy convergence".  Latham is hardly the first to argue that Rudd and Howard are similar, but these sorts of claims should always be doubted.

As Martin Kettle argued in The Guardian in October in a British context, claims of this kind tell us less about political realities than about the assumptions of the person who is writing.  According to Kettle, "the claim that politicians are all the same or that it doesn't make any difference, is frequently made and invariably false, while the fact that many people believe and encourage such falsehoods is disturbing and even dangerous".  He reminds us that some saw nothing between Nixon and JFK or, a generation later, little to separate Bush and Gore.  Kettle’s view is that branding all politicians as ‘the same’ is often nothing more than an expression of the narcissism of the commentator.  In Latham’s case, it is certainly easy enough to read his plague on both political houses as an expression of frustrated egotism.


On a substantive level, Latham’s commentary is seriously flawed.  There is no doubt, of course, that politics in Australia is not marked by the kind of grand ideological divisions between right and left that characterized much of the twentieth century.  Nevertheless, the differences between Rudd’s Labor Opposition and Howard’s Coalition Government remain clear and critical.

The key economic and moral issue of today is climate change and the associated threat of ecological collapse.  In the midst of the election campaign, the United Nations Environment Programme issued its GE0-4 report warning in blunt terms that "major threats to the planet such as climate change" and "the rate of extinction of species" had reached a stage of urgency that "put humanity at risk".  The GEO-4 report is no hack document, but the product of extensive international peer review.  Its provenance is beyond sensible reproach.  Notably, GEO-4 highlights that "several highly-polluting countries" - of which Howard’s Australia is of course one - "have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol".  The objective, the report insists, "is not to present a dark and gloomy scenario, but an urgent call for action".

Latham's article was published after GEO-4 was released, but he manages to evade the importance of the difference between the Coalition and Labor on climate change through an expression of fatalism.  According to Latham, Australia is not a major polluter, so what we do doesn’t really matter.  Again, the former leader is misguided: of course Australia can only do what is within our power as a nation; but what is within our power, we must do.  We are not absolved from responsibility simply because we do not alone carry the fate of the world.

So, how do the parties that Latham cannot separate stack up on the question of the "urgent call for action", climate change and the associated question of the future of humanity?  Well, we know from Clive Hamilton and Guy Pearse that the Howard government has gone out of its way to stifle and frustrate action on climate change.  Even now there is no commitment to signing Kyoto.  The Howard Government’s reasons for not signing Kyoto become ever sillier and hard to sustain as Malcolm Turnbull’s own leaked position on the matter has helpfully illustrated.  Labor will sign Kyoto and will take other measures that clearly separate Rudd from Howard’s inaction on this most crucial of issues.

Apart from the technical inadequacy of the Coalition's response to global warming, there is also an attitude problem.  As Sydney commentator Jane Caro put it in February "at its absolute core, defeating climate change requires collective effort and if there’s one thing the Liberals can’t stand, it’s a collective". In the same month Tony Jones asked Howard on Lateline:

Prime Minister, what do you think living in Australia would be like by the end of this century for your own grandchildren and for the grandchildren and great grandchildren of others, if the temperatures, the average mean temperatures, around the world do rise by somewhere between four and possibly even more than six degrees Celsius?

To which the Prime Minister replied:

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About the Author

David Ritter is a lawyer and an historian based at UWA. David is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.

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