The Leadership of the Labor Party

Bookmark and Share | Gary Johns
Australian Financial Review 28th November, 2003

Simon Crean is no Steve Waugh---he could not plead for one more summer at the top. He did not score enough runs, or take enough wickets, or enough catches.... It appears that the selectors, in this case the caucus, are about to dismiss him. The caucus want to use the summer, and the party's National Conference in January, to regroup. It is a good strategy.

Trouble is, who will replace Crean? Who can defeat John Howard and his government? The answer to the second question is easier than the first. Only the Howard government, or some extraordinary circumstance, can defeat the Howard government. Labor cannot.

So the change of leadership is a defensive move. Labor fears a rout under Crean, it may be avoided under someone else, but not anyone else. Only Mark Latham is credible as the alternative leader, and he will need two shots at it. The election of Kim Beazley would be a sure sign that the party has given up even the pretence of the hunt for government. Kevin Rudd is a very good performer, but is unknown outside Queensland. I presume Jenny Macklin will remain as deputy, the Left would not move against Crean without that guarantee. I presume there will be just one candidate come next Tuesday, the party is very good at that sort of thing.

Mark Latham has some Keatingesque attributes, without the esque. In other words, he and his ideas are unrefined, but so was Keating in the early days in Treasury. And remember the years immediately before the 1983 election. He was shadow minister for Minerals and Energy, developing a policy that wanted to 'supervise', 'tax' and 'control' the entire sector. Remember the plans for the National Energy Commission, and the Australian Hydrocarbon Corporation! Crazy stuff when you look back, but he learned so quickly and well in the job as Treasurer, he ditched the lot. Latham is also a fast learner.

Beazley and Kevin Rudd are highly intelligent and capable politicians but they do not have a capacity to develop and carry a message.

As to the message.

You can forget the vision stuff. The constituents want specific products from the Commonwealth, not a vision. Leave that to the broadsheets and the academy. Pack your kit bag with specifics and sell them. Make sure there are tax cuts for all, do not touch gimmicks like medical tag teams rushing to understaffed public hospitals. If the government and the prime Minister are right, then say so. Talk TAFE, not just universities; devise a state-by-state strategy. Drop the McHale's navy stuff with the Coast Guard. Do not fall for the intergenerational inequity gambit either, or a population policy.

The message is, government can help, but it is not there to run you life.

Think credibility, credibility, credibility.

That means not talking publicly to some people. Stay away from your new party president Carmen Lawrence. The Hawke-Wran Review had a bad day when they dreamed up the direct election of party President. It is not a mass party boys, it just a preselection school. Carmen Lawrence may have received 6,000 votes in the presidential election, but King and Turnbull stacked almost that many into Wentworth in a couple of weeks!

Policy is made elsewhere. Which by the way means you should also stay away from Tim Costello, stay away from Peter Garrett, and stay off the ABC. Choose carefully whom you meet. Real people who can help carry your story, not psuedo-politicians who want to sell you their story.

There is plenty of talent on the front bench, though it could have been a lot better if at least six members past their prime had retired at the last election and the party had trialled some new players. Bring back Steven Smith, move Wayne Swan, if only to stop that families and battlers drivel.

Latham has to make some personal changes; discipline must be added to his distinctiveness. He can connect with the electorate, he has the language, sometimes too much of it, but he will learn.

As Whitlam wrote of Latham, 'he has the background, skills and capacity to make a substantial contribution to the Party and the Parliament for a considerable period to come.' Gough's right on this one.

It is a big job, he has some big shoes to fill, but Mark Latham, can, in time be Prime Minister.