The polls are good – but there are chinks in Iron Mark’s armour. But who’s testing them? Read on…

So Iron Mark is riding high in the polls? So he’s got the highest rating an Opposition Leader has ever got in all of Newspoll’s history?

So what? John Howard is still the preferred Prime Minister – 44 to 39 per cent.

It doesn’t matter if 62 per cent of people – or 99.9, for that matter – think you’re doing a good job as Opposition Leader. You want them to want you to be PM.

Mark Latham has got a few weak spots that could stop this from ever happening.

Fortunately, the person doing the most to probe these chinks – and doing it most effectively – happens to be Peter Costello. Whenever he does a good job, it makes the Prime Minister look as if he’s lost his edge and revs the leadership speculation up again.

But back to Latham.

Mark Latham doesn’t want distractions like Bob McMullan’s ill-judged and even more ill-timed tax pedantry.

He has made two very big errors himself. One will haunt him all the way to the next election and the other will be a problem until he has announced virtually all of his policies and it can be seen in context – so until just before the election.

To make matters worse, they entwine and add up to a single very big negative that John Howard, Peter Costello and the entire Coalition will just love throwing at the ALP.

Mark Latham is a hard man – but he got all sentimental when he became Labor leader.

That’s when he made mistake number one. He let Simon Crean – a failure with plenty of history and an even greater inability to connect with the electorate – take the vital Shadow Treasurer’s portfolio.

Mistake number two was also made for sentimental – if pragmatic – reasons. It came in January at Labor’s National Conference in Sydney when he promised to re-regulate some aspects of industrial relations as a silly sop to those members of his party who don’t yet know what century we’re living in.

As a result of mistake number one, he has an embarrassment shadowing a wannabe prime minister. He has to hide him most of the time.

Wayne Swan does the running on tax and families as Families spokesperson, while Shadow Finance Minister Bob McMullan plays the wonk and handles the nuts and bolts issues – but Latham will have to let Crean out on Budget night. That should help the Government – having Crean everywhere at the most vital moment they have to build up the momentum needed to get them successfully through another election.

And since the full impact of result number two won’t be seen until it can be fitted into a wider policy framework – and sends out a lot of negative signals to some influential people – we imagine Latham has to do a lot of (dare we say) arselicking of his own when he’s in their boardrooms.

The tax detail Latham and Labor was forced to deal with yesterday was the result of a silly nit-picking error on McMullan’s part – but we can expect not to see too many of them.

McMullan, after all, is responsible for much of Labor’s current success. The tax attack he launched as shadow treasurer has been biting the Government since before the last Budget.

Still, it was a distraction Latham does not need. Labor’s tax talk has gone down well so far – with families and ordinary voters.

However, who will have to pay for everything Latham promises? Not business?

A rollback of IR reforms and the chance that they’ll pay more tax? They won’t like that.

Talk to the top end of town at the moment and what do they say? You’ll hear something along the lines of how the last thing they want is a change of government, how the stability they have had over the past few years is now only just starting to reap returns and how they can now make investment decisions against an unprecedented backdrop of low inflation.

They won’t like the idea of Latham coming and messing this up – one way or another.

The Prime Minister showed how this will all be used against Latham and the ALP when he appeared on John Laws’ show on Monday.

His pitch was aimed at ordinary voters – but business would have been listening, too.

Firstly, Howard warned that if Labor wins the election the party will be in control of every federal, state and territory government in Australia and there will be no checks and balances.

He then singled out Latham’s IR commitments for comment.

Winning the next election, he said, “will be tough and I always said it will be tough. But as time goes by people will understand that there is a choice and that the prosperity of the last eight years has not been accidental and that a Latham Labor government would threaten that, particularly in the area of industrial relations.”

Howard then stitched the two together by saying he would be reminding voters of the 17 per cent interest rates under Labor and pointing out that with complete Labor reign the unions would be running the nation.

And Latham is left carrying the load here – because his Shadow Treasurer is Simon Crean.

That’s why Bob McMullan was in the position to make his slip up in the first place – because Latham and his backroom boys know Crean is a disaster and want to keep him hidden away.

The Gallery is onto this. At the doorstops yesterday morning outside the Reps, as pollies arrived, journos were asking about Crean’s low profile.

Crean, however, is not just a failed opposition leader. He is not just a clear link back to the last Labor administration and its economic failures.

There is a very simple political equation that should push him out of the picture altogether – former ACTU boss Simon Crean = unions.

And no-one wants Australia to be run by the unions. Labor has to hide Crean because he’s electoral poison.

Fortunately for Labor, the person in the Government who has had the most to say about this is Peter Costello.

While the Prime Minister was giving monosyllabic answers in Question Time yesterday, Costello was sloshing scorn all over Crean and the ALP.

Everyone noticed that Crean got the second question – and Costello was out there talking about the suggestion that Labor was hiding the Member for Hotham from their policy make-up and telling the world how glad he was to see that Crean will be an active participant in the next election campaign.

It was great stuff – even though nowadays every strong performance from the Treasurer is seen as an audition for John Howard’s job.

Still, bravura attacks on Simon Crean from Costello cannot be used by Labor to talk up tensions in the Government.

Why?

Because if they want to, they’ll have to come clean and say it won’t just be Latham running the show if they win government, but also that mate of big unions, Simon Crean. Either that or they’ll dump him.

Labor can have plenty of fun with the Howard and Costello tensions. No doubt they’re delighted when the commentariat refer to Latham as the “alternative prime minister”

But how would they feel if the same people started talking about “Simon Crean, alternative treasurer”? How would the voters react? How much confidence does the thought of a PM Latham/Treasurer Crean team instil in the business community?

Now there’s a really good question for A C Neilson or Newspoll.

Who do you trust more to keep the national economy strong: Simon Crean or Peter Costello?

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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