AN Australian Labour Party insider ran down the corridor of Federal Parliament in Canberra last week and said to his colleagues: “Get in, sit down, put on your seat belt and hang on.”
His excited remark coming before the result was announced, undoubtedly, reflects the characteristics of the new Labour leader, who will lead his team on a roller-coaster ride in the run-up to the next federal election, possibly within a few months.
Mark Latham, 42, is a politician always in a hurry. He is like a man who feels he would miss the bus if he didn’t get on it quickly enough.
His unexpected win by just two votes (47 to 45) over the more popular and predictable Kim Beazley for the Labour leadership shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it did.
Maybe because, in a more kindly assessment, he is regarded as untested, inexperienced and too young – the youngest leader in Labour’s 100-year history – to take the baton and challenge the battle-tough Prime Minister John Howard, who is 22 years older than Latham and has about 33 years’ parliamentary experience.
In the most unkind judgment on him, his opponents believe he is politically mad, crude, a loose-dirty mouth – describing George W. Bush as the most incompetent US president in history – dangerous to Australia’s alliance with the US and an aggressor, who broke the arm of a taxi driver in a row for which his explanation was “the taxi driver was trying to steal my property”.
But to be fair, the unpredictable and brash larrikin (Australian slang for a person with outlandish behaviour), who came from a poor family background in Sydney’s western suburb of Green Valley, is passionate about his vision for the future of Australia and where he wants it to go.
Labour was in a predicament with a leadership crisis. It needed a new leader, perhaps a generational leader, who could inspire the voters back to its fold and help regain the power it had lost on the federal level.
Unfortunately, there was no other candidate except Latham and Kim Beazley.
After 11 years in the political wilderness since Paul Keating’s defeat to John Howard, the party could not impact on the electorate with recycled former leaders. Their political credibility is almost beyond redemption.
Beazley, the two-time loser who also failed in the leadership challenge in June and is now making his second attempt, was an unlikely electoral winner.
Simon Crean, who until last week was the leader, had lost the confidence of the Labour hierarchy because of his inability to reunite the divisive and hostile party.
He had also consistently failed to raise his political ratings from the lowest ebb of 20% to 25%.
And he is seen by his own group as uninspiring in his parliamentary performance while Howard continued to dominate the political scene.
In effect, he lacked charisma and had to go.
So the Labour caucus took its boldest step and the biggest gamble in the party’s history on Latham, whose rise from backbencher to Treasury spokesman and now party leader in less than two years has been indeed meteoric.
What did the 92-member caucus see in him in spite of his erratic behaviour and unparliamentary outbursts.
Paradoxically, he might be a clone of Keating in the style of a political street fighter, but Latham’s performance in parliament brings back the perception of a leader who could possibly tilt Howard’s dominance to his advantage despite some commentators’ description of him as naïve and politically immature.
It is, nevertheless, lively and interesting, to say the least.
Some people believe he is “fantastic”, the type of politician they need with a bit of “oomph” in him, rough edges and all.
Others think his language is disgusting, but Latham offers no apology and will stick to it with less crudity, though.
In general, what did they know about him?
“Absolutely nothing” was the typical answer from the man-in-the-street.
But, despite the controversies he has attracted, there is little doubt that Latham has identified himself with the nation’s upwardly mobile and aspiring middle-class voters, who could make a difference in the polling booths.
He is ideas-driven, not afraid to speak his mind and is prepared to take risks. Nor will he be intimidated by the trade union movement, the traditional Labour base of political support.
And what is important is that, contrary to the belief of his political enemies and those who ignore his capability, he is an intellectual with a simple aim of meeting the aspirations of the working-class families.
He appears arrogant, like Keating was, but he can be quite persuasive.
His own inspiration is based on two aspects of political life. One is a society where people can “climb the rungs of opportunity, working hard and studying hard” and be rewarded for their efforts.
The other is the one-vote majority win in the leadership battle of John Curtin who, despite some strong criticisms, led Labour to poll victory and became Australia’s wartime prime minister.
Curtin’s achievements in various fields during a short tenure of office before his death was later recognised by the renaming of the Western Australian Institute of Technology to Curtin University.
The man who has most influence on Latham is former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who gave him his first political job as a researcher.
He later inherited Whitlam’s seat of Werriwa in western Sydney with whom he admits he has been on the phone regularly since then.
And he carries Whitlam’s mantle by steering a course between market economics and older-style socialism, rejecting the old-fashioned tax-and-spend economics and the new style social progressivism.
This is not surprising because of the fact that he has risen from a hard life in his younger days, the values of which he treasures.
However, the challenges facing Latham as Opposition Leader and the alternative prime minister are enormous.
Reforming the social welfare state, solving the unemployment problem, especially among youths, and tackling the indigenous claims are just some of the big issues.
There are also the Medicare issue of saving bulk-billing, providing affordable education for all, raising the quality of life, ensuring justice in Australian society and, of course, his favourite subject of providing the ladder of opportunities for people who are prepared to work hard.
He promises bold policies to win back voters’ support for the Labour Party.
“The country desperately needs a change of government,” he declares. “And I’ll be doing everything I can to work hard.”
Then, addressing those who were bitterly disappointed at Beazley’s defeat, Latham calls on them to return to the front bench and forget the in-fighting that had continued for the last six months.
He stresses that it is time they all put their “shoulders to the wheel” with him to make a commitment to the party and, “hopefully in a good Labour government, our commitment to the country”.
o Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media (e-mail: email@example.com)
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