POLITICS The Aussie Battler

Trust is not word to toss around in politics. Voters say they don’t trust politicians much. But trust is at the core of the impending Australian election.
The issue is how much the Australian Labour party’s new leader, Mark Latham, can be trusted – not whether he keeps promises but whether he has the experience and level-headedness to run the country. The incumbent Liberals will pound this point.
Latham is mercurial figure.
Stories abound of his physical and verbal aggression. Politicians are expected to be aggressive. Not, however, to women, taxi drivers (who in one case reportedly ended up with broken arm) or business groups trying to engage.
Latham teems with ideas. Some are interesting, some well researched, some best quietly dropped. He is one of the most inventive thinkers on the modern left but has reputation for not thinking through the detail. Carry-through is an important trust indicator.
Like National’s leader Don Brash, Latham is, in some important areas, short on expertise. His most notable ineptitude so far has been in discussing national security policy. He promised to bring Australia troops home from Iraq by Christmas. The Liberals paint that as anti-American which, unlike here, doesn’t go down so well with most Australians. Former Labour leader Kim Beazley, pro-American hawk, had to be recalled to the front bench to fix the mess.
Latham hails from housing estate. He speaks the language, direct and straightforward, sometimes peppered with expletives. His no-nonsense values are those of the Aussie battler. Latham is highly intellectual “bloke”.
Latham is charismatic but, also is aloof. He can charm but is not naturally charming. His campaign conduct could win or lose an election. That makes him tricky and unpredictable opponent for canny conservative like John Howard, sniffing fourth term as Prime Minister.
Howard runs on trust, as the known quantity and quality from long stint as Treasurer in the late 1970s and early 1980s and eight years at the top. Wrapped in the American flag, he pumps national security as the man who can keep boat people out and terror at bay. Dull, predictable, reassuring.
Howard’s idea of reform, even where his backers want it, is incremental. Deregulation of the labour and other markets has been cautious and always with sympathetic eye to sensitive industries and jobs.
He shamelessly buys votes, scraping the fiscal barrel before each election, in the time-honoured tradition of tinkering conservatives. His special manoeuvre this time is $600 welfare bonus, which boosted retail spending just ahead of the election. Sure, there is risk of budget deficits if the economy dips but, so far he has got away with it every time.
Howard enters the election with buoyant economy. Why would voters switch when times are good? And, Labour can’t be trusted not to trigger rise in interest rates with its economic and social spending agenda. Higher interest rates would make life edgy in debt-ridden binge-consumer economy heavily dependent on house prices holding up.
To prove it can be trusted, Labour tries to match new revenue or savings to each promise in health and education where it has an electoral advantage.
What, then, would Latham government bring?
The key to Latham lies in line of thought he developed while backbencher refusing to serve under Beazley. Labour should, he reckons, stand for “outsiders”. Too many of its top people have become “insiders”, latte drinkers divorced from the suburbs by geography or ideology.
In his opinion, Labour should set up “ladder of opportunity” for outsiders. This is not, he argues, the state doing things for people, taking responsibility for how well they do and excusing them if they fail. Latham’s ladder is the state giving people the bottom rung and making sure the rest of the steps – such as education and health care – are in place so they can then climb for themselves.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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