Can we please have Iron Mark back? He’s good.
So Labor’s stance on the Free Trade Agreement is out – check it out here. Now, here comes the interesting bit. Will Labor get away with it?
The media release says “Throughout this year, Labor has said that we would judge the Howard Government’s trade agreement with the United States on the evidence: is it a net plus or minus for Australia?

“This is why we referred the matter to a Senate Committee for thorough examination – to consider all the facts and arguments and reach a conclusion in the national interest.

“This was the right approach. The Agreement doesn’t come into force until next year, and we have a duty to the Australian people to make a considered decision.”

Fudge – but fudge Mark Latham cut with a beauty of a line at the press conference he gave in the Opposition Party Room right after Caucus signed off on the decision.

He spoke about how Labor had reached its decision after considering the “facts” – as opposed what made the Government act over Iraq.

It showed Latham at his pugnacious best – even as he was essentially toeing the line over the FTA.

It was Latham talking direct, as opposed to all the “I am informed etc” – precedes to who knew what when handwashing exercises – that precedes any comment from the Government.

It can’t show in the transcript, but it was really quite interesting to see how Peter Costello paused on Sunday when Laurie Oakes asked him this question

“Well, the issue that the Government seems to want to hammer Mark Latham on even more than his tax policy is the Free Trade Agreement with the US. But what’s the rush? This doesn’t come into effect until next year, does it?”

Latham used the timing issue well today – and he should be able to use Costello’s response and the way he answered further questions on the matter.

PETER COSTELLO: Well, this could be the last sitting of the Parliament before the election. As you know, you call an election – that takes a month before you hold it. You get a new Government. So I think it’d be useful to have this agreement in place as soon as possible. Now, this has passed the United States House and Senate. It has passed the Australian House. And we think it’s time that it passed the Australian Senate. We had a joint committee look at it. We’ve had economic modelling done on it. Now, apparently the Labor Party is desperately trying to patch together some agreement between the left and the right wings in relation to it, but I think Labor will vote for it. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Labor will vote for it. So if Labor’s going to vote for it, you know, it can do it the long way round or it can do the short way round. Why don’t we get on with it?

LAURIE OAKES: But why shouldn’t it look at this properly? Why shouldn’t it wait for the Senate Committee report, given that there’s no urgency about this except the Government’s apparent desire to use this as a wedge issue for the election?

PETER COSTELLO: Oh, I think that there is an urgency about it. It has to come into force next year. We’re already August.

LAURIE OAKES: It’s only August. Next year’s a long way off. We’re only talking about delaying another week or so.

PETER COSTELLO: Well – well, Laurie, you know, the Parliament is not going to be sitting through that period, as I’ve already said, because we’re going to have an election. But leaving all that aside, we’ve – we’ve already had discussion about this. We’ve had a joint committee. We’ve had the debate in the House of Reps. See – don’t forget this – the Labor Party, including Mr Latham, have already allowed this through the House of Representatives. Mr Latham’s a member of the House of Representatives, right? So if he had great objection to the Free Trade Agreement, you would have assumed he would stand up in the House of Representatives, and he would have stated it. But in fact the Labor Party let it through the people’s chamber, the main chamber of the Australian Parliament. So the suggestion that – that they let it through then and now they’ve got to have a look at it – don’t you think it’s a little bit late to be looking at it after you’ve let it through the House of Representatives? And so we only say this, that –

LAURIE OAKES: Well, it seems to me to be fair enough to wait for the Senate Committee. I can’t see a problem.

PETER COSTELLO: Well – well, Laurie, if it required so much investigation, why did they let it through the House of Representatives?

LAURIE OAKES: Because they knew that they could stop it in the Senate if the – if the report was unfavourable, I guess. That’s fairly logical.

PETER COSTELLO: Well, what has now come to light that they didn’t know when it was in the House of Representatives? We’re going back in two weeks. It’s been debated. The Labor Party, I think, will be voting for it. I don’t think there’s much chance that it won’t. Why are they eking it out? The only thing that worries me about this is I feel they’re again trying to play to two constituencies. They’re playing to the responsible economic constituency saying yes, we’ll pass it wink, wink, nod, nod. And they’re trying to play to the left wing this prospect that somehow they may not let it through. And when the vote comes they won’t be able to play both of those constituencies. They’ll be forced to make a decision. And I think they should in the public interest make that decision. They should make it clear.

Labor’s FTA decision is the outcome of political compromise. So is most deal making. But what about the doublespeak in Costello’s replies. How is the Government being allowed time after time to get away with this sort of thing.

As he showed at his presser today, Latham can cut right through it.

Now, we all know that Latham once was sorta matey with some free-market types – the CIS boys, Paddy, even Christopher Pearson – but that they all fell out.

Here’s hoping the experience hasn’t turned him off Tories, as there was some advice in that Tory Bible, The Spectator, that could be very useful to him.

It was directed at the Conservatives there, but Latham should take a keen interest in its topic – getting rid of a shabby government. It’s up here, and here are a few highlights:

“Evidence mounts as to the waste of money in almost every department of state… ‘Spend more, deliver less’; that should be the Blair government’s slogan.

“Yet none of this seems to have much effect on public opinion. According to the poll evidence, the voters do not think well of the government. They also believe that Mr Blair lies to them. But they do not really mind. That has been Tony Blair’s greatest achievement. He has presided over a marked increase in public cynicism about politics without suffering significant damage to his own electoral prospects. As people lose faith in Mr Blair, they merely conclude that all politicians are the same. So why not stick with this lot?

“In view of that, the Tory position is almost hopeless…

“Some of this is due to contentment. People who are happy enough with their lot and do not feel threatened by any party see no need to vote. But large numbers of voters are thoroughly disillusioned with the language and practices of politics. To them, the way that their governors — and aspirant governors — act and talk has all the obscurity of Harry Potter’s Quidditch and none of the charm.

“It may be that this surly electoral mood is too settled to be remediable by anything short of an economic crisis. But the Tories must force themselves to believe otherwise. Like a good bridge player in an apparently hopeless contract, they have to assume that the cards are where they need them to be. They have to base their strategy on the conviction that enough of the millions of voters who have abandoned the political marketplace since 1992 can be persuaded to return, and that an abstaining voter is a volatile voter.

“One reason for mass abstention is the belief that politicians not only lie; they patronise. Voters cannot bear being talked down to. There is a lot of resentment about the dumbing-down of politics, and a potential willingness to blame Tony Blair.

“So Michael Howard should now instruct his bright youngsters in Central Office — there are plenty of them — to throw away the style books and to discard every existing political formulation. Even voters who do not know the meaning of the word ‘cliché’ recognise one when they hear it from a politician. Central Office ought to spend August melting down its entire vocabulary and then re-minting it.

“Thought should also be given to a political tactic which is so unusual that it might well confound the Tories’ opponents: the truth. After all, there is no reason to exaggerate the Blair government’s domestic failings; an understated factual record should be good enough to inflict discredit…

“The Tories will need to present a convincing account of Britain as it is now in fresh and honest language. They will need to set out their own policies in realistic terms, without making implausible promises. They will have to reconnect with people’s aspirations. They will have to make people angry. They have about two months to complete these small tasks…

“As there is no alternative, they ought to get cracking right away.”

Now you’re a smart lot, readers, and so is Mark Latham. I don’t need to tell you what to change to apply the Speccie’s wisdom to domestic politics.

The message is simple. Don’t talk down. Don’t talk in circles. Talk straight.

Iron Mark used to be good at this. Iron Mark used to be good. At the moment we have Lead Mark – soft, poisonous and great at sinking.

This is the highest taxing government in Australia’s history, yet it’s not delivering. It says it’s the only government that can protect the people – but it won’t even trust them with the truth. And so on and so on.

Stuff the FTA. That decision’s made. The Prime Minister wants to string out an election in the hopes that a whole of lot other decisions, that a whole lot of other distractions, will wear Labor down or tie them in knots. Or both.

They shouldn’t let him. They should bring back Iron Mark and let him knock away the encumbrances the PM tries to place around his party and just go for it. Hell for leather.

We saw a ray of line shine through the FTA fog today.

Bring back Iron Mark.

PS Don’t forget: Labor can kick the Greens from here to kingdom come and still get their preferences.

Christian Kerr can be contacted at christian @crikey.com.au

Peter Fray

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