Will the real Mark Latham please stand up…

Noel Hadjimichael is Webdiary’s conservative columnist.


The new Mark Latham, leader rather than larrikin policy pundit, has to make up his mind who he really is: the new Whitlam offering a plethora of programs to meet the needs of a tired electorate, the new Keating fixated on a culture war agenda, or a genuine voice from the suburbs.

A Whitlam-style ‘Its Time’ campaign would be shallow and lacking in concrete community support. The commentariat might be tired of John Howard and his boring small ‘c’ conservative ways but the electorate are not confined to the coffee houses of Annandale or Brunswick. The last eight years have seen a solid economic performance as we weathered dramatic foreign policy events such as East Timor and Iraq.

A return to the Keating-style of combat against the ‘Tories’ will play for only a small batch of ideological true believers. Denigrating the other side and undermining their legitimacy on all things symbolic (republic, reconciliation, the flag, parliamentary procedures) is an undergraduate ploy. It might get you through a couple of Lateline interviews you have no substantive argument for change beyond tinkering with the issues that excite the minority.

Mr Latham�s political career has been grounded in the battle of ideas and actions in suburban Australia. A former Mayor of a very large and high profile council, he should understand the dynamics of community politics. It is not the great schemes that excite the imagination, it is the pot holes in the road down the corner, the unsatisfactory wait at the hospital or the inadequate pay packet on Thursday.

Latham Labor must consider who the important voters are. They are not the inner city trendies with their preoccupation with the environment or human rights. They will vote for the broad left regardless.

The real targets must be the swinging voters of the outer suburbs and regions who have given John Howard such loyalty over the years. These are the people who do not feel guilty about choosing the low cost private school, who value the health fund rebate, who are reassured by our American Alliance and who want less tax taken from their pocket.

The aspirationals might be considered the successful sons and daughters of the battler class. Both groups generally like Australia the way it is.

They do not want expensive debates over constitutional change. They are suspicious of new programs to bleed tax from their pockets to pay for welfare handouts. They are facing tough decisions on education, healthcare, housing and jobs.

They trust their own instincts more than government’s. They have not got ahead because they scored an ‘easy’ job or obtained social housing.

It will be interesting to see which Mark Latham emerges: a clone of a Labor legend, a clone of Bill Clinton, or a real advocate for suburban values. If the loss of the trendy left is what it takes to make a fresh Labor product, then so be it.

Latham Labor cannot have it both ways: it will have to accept that it will lose the inner city voters to the Greens during any makeover. If it does not, then Labor will remain the party of limited convictions, deals and convenience.

Leave a Reply