One week out, Boilermaker Bill reviews the election campaign so far:
Five weeks in, one week out, it’s still a contest. Jakarta had nothing like the impact I thought it might. Have we become so inured to terrorism and tragedy, that short of Australians being slain, we seem almost unfazed in its face? The massacre of the innocents in Belsan seemed to render the events of the subsequent week less potent and less affecting. Nine Indonesians die, and our abiding image of the Jakarta bombing will not be of them – but rather our flag waving in front of the shards of glass hanging in the windows of nearby buildings and the soap opera of two men and a baby.
Five weeks in, one week out, I am still not convinced that Latham can take us over the line. I’m naturally pessimistic at the best of times – and perhaps I’m wearied by our failing fortunes in Macquarie Street, but I’m no more confident that we’ll win this time than I was in 2001. If ever there was a compelling case for removing this Government, this campaign has provided it: we are being bribed with our own money in an unseemly hunger for office that no price is too small to pay for re-election. Obviously parties will always appeal to our baser instincts, but this “loadsamoney” election, with cash virtually being pressed into the hands of anyone who counts, represents the nadir of obscenity. I can’t tell you how much I want Latham to win on Saturday: if only, to rescue our better selves from what is less an election, than a bartering for votes.
But can Latham do it? Say what you like about election campaigns, and the phoney campaign since Latham’s ascension last December, there is nothing like the hothouse atmosphere of an election to test a leader and a party in all conditions. And if we lose, it’ll be in part because we had so little momentum going into the campaign, not least from indulging Latham’s nine month campaign to be Australia’s Best Dad and elevating some kind of nationwide book club or Read-a-thon as public policy.
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While there have been highlights, including the Launch last Wednesday, what comes across in Latham’s campaigning is how woefully under prepared and under done he is. And it’s not surprising – of all the candidates for Prime Minister in the post war period, Latham has probably had the least experience as a campaigner at the Ministerial/Shadow and Leadership levels.
Remember: Latham sulked through the 1998 campaign after the back room boys in Beazley’s office tried to salvage something from the mental porridge that was Latham’s education policy. His sulk lasted right through the 2001 election until Crean went for the crazy brave option of
inviting Latham back to the frontbench. Even John Hewson, Latham’s only competitor for least experienced Prime Ministerial campaigner, had a successful campaign as Shadow Treasurer in 1990, when the answer was supposedly Liberal, but God knows what the question was.
Add Latham’s inexperience to that the fact that most Australians have had so little time to get to know Latham. This is in contrast to nearly every other Leader of the Opposition who has become Prime Minister in the post-war period, perhaps with the exception of Fraser (who I’ll return to later).
Before winning in 1949, Menzies had been Prime Minister ten years before and had undertaken the massive effort of rebuilding the conservative side of politics five years before. Whitlam was a highly visible Deputy Leader of the Opposition Leader for five years before his election as Leader in 1967, and he had to fight the half-Senate election in 1967, the 1969 election and the 1970 half Senate election before he was eventually elected Prime Minister.
Hawke – ah, Hawke. Yes he was made Opposition Leader on the day the 1983 election was called but he was ACTU Secretary, ALP President and Labor’s Messiah for twenty years and more before that day. There was no excuse for not knowing Hawke who was, just as there was no excuse for not knowing who Howard was after nearly 20 years as Minister, Treasurer, leadership aspirant, Leader, leadership aspirant, man in the wilderness and finally Leader and Prime Minister.
The exception to this rule is of course Fraser who was Leader for just 8 months before the Dismissal and the subsequent landslide victory in the December elections. Before he became Leader he had a moderately high profile as Minister for the Army and his subsequent challenge to
Gorton’s integrity and authority, resulting in the Leadership spill in 1971 which saw McMahon become Prime Minister. But other than that, Australian voters did not have much to measure Malcolm by – if there was ever a drover’s dog election, the 1975 election was it. And I’d argue
that because so little was known about Fraser, this (along with the subsequent fear of division following the Dismissal) severely affected the legitimacy of his election and compromised his mandate. Without having enough experience of him to judge for themselves, voters were
initially given a quick portrait of Fraser as the “Prefect”, the Squatter, the Easter Island figure – aloof, condescending, detached. The voters wanted Gough out, no doubt about that, but they never ever warmed to Fraser. So much so that I think Fraser was severely hampered in pursuing a truly conservative agenda because of the baggage and lack of legitimacy that these early snapshots created for him and his Government.
It’s no secret that I did not have a high regard for Latham when he was elected last year. One blogger at the time even called me bilious. It wasn’t bile but frustration and exasperation that the best that our party could offer to lead Australia at the time was effectively Beazley, Latham and Crean. After his election I put it down to the Party electing the wrong man to lead, but ultimately, making the only choice if Labor wasn’t going to be slaughtered at the coming election and banished to Opposition for another two or three terms. I admire Latham’s intellectual curiosity (but not so much his ideas and writings, which often demonstrate too much reading, too little thinking) – or rather admired it, for there hasn’t been much of it in evidence since his election as Leader.
What we get now is a Leader who has been so thoroughly media managed that every utterance is an opportunity to “establish and reiterate key messages”. Latham has sounded so managed, forced and stilted in his attempts to get the message out with his “ladder of opportunity”, “ease
the squeeze” and “I’m ready to lead, Howard’s ready to leave”, that I sincerely hope there is a drinking game in some Labor backroom which sees everyone down a drink when Latham utters the magic words. Latham’s efforts to reinforce these epigrams is so bad I suspect our own version of the Manchurian Candidate: the Confucian Candidate.
Latham’s run this time has been seriously damaged by the lack of self discipline in his rise to the Leadership. I don’t need to run through all his mistakes and misdemeanours – I don’t have to because they are all so well known. Latham has been severely hampered by having to unload the baggage that his belligerent rough housing exploits have created for him. This has fettered Latham’s campaign in two ways: first his leadership persona is seen through this prism; every word, every deed has been scrutinised for the slightest hint that Latham has returned to his bad old self, and second, he has painted himself into a corner by holding back on the passion, the aggression that might have given his campaign more energy and fizz.
I know a few people in the campaign are holding their breath and hoping that Latham stays cool during the last week of the campaign. There’s an abiding sense that they are well placed in the race but that anything can happen. There is a fear that if at any time Latham feels the contest
slipping away from him he’ll go in boots and all to win what has become the most winnable election for Labor in 14 years. The Hewson meltdown in the last week of the 1993 Fightback campaign remains indelibly etched into the political memory on both sides of politics as the campaign that self-combusted. No-one wants history repeating.
What I’ll find impossible to forgive if we do lose the election come Saturday is that we held so much of our good policies to hand to the very last moment. I know damned if he did, damned if he didn’t – but Latham should really have road tested some of the central planks of Labor’s election policies during the past six months.
Take education funding. The Government drew its line in the sand on schools funding at that media opportunity where Howard and Cardinal Pell announced that Catholic schools would come into the fold on the socio economic status model for funding. The Government obviously had no more room to turn the SES liner around, so where was the downside in announcing and road testing Labor’s policy much earlier, to leave sufficient room in the campaign to let other policies, like child care, have a clearer run?
Where will the election be won and lost on Saturday? For Labor, it’s Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. There’s been so few obvious signs in New South Wales that I think some unlikely seats will change hands, but this will leave Labor, at least, with no discernible gain in this state.
Whether we win or lose Saturday, something has to be done about the Party in NSW. I’ll return to this topic after the election, but for now let it be sufficient to say that I have rarely ever seen such an uninspiring campaign and field of candidates from the ALP in NSW. Where do I start? The rotten boroughs of Liverpool and Fairfield? The recycling of shopworn candidates who have so little to commend themselves with their selection down to their sense of entitlement? Yes to all these.
But what I find unbelievable and unforgiveable is our seeming failure to truly understand what is needed to win voters in the key seats in and around Sydney we need to hold and win: Parramatta, Lindsay, Macquarie, Hughes, Lowe. Much has been made of the aspirational voters of Sydney – much of it true. And Latham has a pretty good sense of their aspirations, but his need to present this as some battlefront in the class war, wins these voters with one breath and loses them in the next.
A somewhat surprising aspect of the aspirational class is that it is devoid of the politics of envy. You don’t win votes with this class by pitting them against the silvertails of the North Shore and Eastern Suburbs. These voters work hard for everything they do, and don’t want to feel indebted to a Robin Hood Government that snatches from one hand and gives to them with the other. Their aspirations are rooted strongly in wanting a sense of security, economically, socially, physically and nationally. They were the Tampa voters of 2001, worried about a downturn
in the economy and fearful that boats over the horizon were bringing multitudes who would put their own way of life at risk. Well entrenched as the new middle class, many of them still regard themselves as working class, because that’s how they grew up.
They want a financially secure life for themselves and their family, and to give their kids more options in life than even they had. They don’t want the life they’ve created for themselves to ever be at risk from crime or terrorism. Ultimately, they’ve worked hard, saved well and lived economically for so long that they want nothing to undo the world they’ve created: Latham’s frequent expression of his Langite tendencies give them cause for concern because if the more well to do are squeezed tight to pay for Labor’s promises then it can happen to anyone, or more
to the point, them. They don’t consider themselves rich but appreciate that they’ve created a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their family – and have an abiding concern that one day Labor will turn and target them.
But again, more of these matters after the election.
Before the 1993 election, David Malouf told Kerry O’Brien on Lateline that he regarded the election as a “festival of democracy”. It is, and it’s one of the greatest days in our democracy. For all the moment and import of this event, it’s very low key – attending schools, church halls and community centres across the land – a fund raising fete here, a sausage sizzle there. Each parties infantry spending up to twelve hours to have one last go at getting the voters’ attention – the badinage and good natured jousting between the various camps. But always with the underlying promise of electing the good and great to lead us. These better parts of our nature might not see out the day, I wouldn’t miss this date with destiny for quids.
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