Labor’s ghost of 2004
There was lots of brave policy under Mark Latham
On July 31, 2004, then Opposition leader Mark Latham wrote in his diary: “We can’t win.” It was still months before the looming federal election was called, before the infamous domineering handshake with John Howard. What brought on this fit of pessimism? As TheLatham Diaries record, Labor’s two-party lead had shrunk from 55–45 to 51–49; voters were trending back towards the government. Labor’s idealistic, gutsy policy adventurism had failed to gain traction. The hip pocket ruled in a surging economy and, combined with niggling doubts about Labor’s competence on national security, the accumulated anger against a third-term government dissipated in a devil-you-know decision. With today’s Fairfax-Ipsos poll the latest to put Labor and the Coalition at 51–49, there are some parallels between Latham in 2004 and Bill Shorten heading into the next election.
The alarm bell for Latham came when pollster John Utting delivered an internal report based on focus group research. According to Utting, Latham wrote: “Earlier this year the electorate thought that Howard had run out of puff and didn’t have much to offer for the future, leading to a ‘time for change’ mood. After the Budget in May, however, his image improved. He’s now seen as safe and reliable, a known quantity who stands up for what he believes in.” On Latham himself? Voters were wary of his inexperience, and “our early success in conveying the Ladder of Opportunity message, with its focus on education and social issues, has faded away … the recent round of policy announcements has not cut through.”
There are differences, of course, on both sides of the political aisle. With axed former leaders Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce still tormenting the Coalition, the Turnbull government is more divided than the Howard government was, notwithstanding the poisonous relationship between the then PM and his treasurer, Peter Costello, betrayed by Howard’s decision to go again. Nevertheless Howard and Costello kept the show on the road, kept governing, in a way that we are only beginning to glimpse with Turnbull and Morrison. Yet Howard arguably had more baggage in 2004 than Turnbull will have at the next election: he had dragged Australia into an unpopular, disastrous war, based on a lie, and made Australia a bigger target for terrorists, by the admission of his own federal police commissioner. The lies told in the dark victory of 2001 – there were no “children overboard” – were beginning to catch up with him.
On Labor’s part, Latham was an unknown quantity who proved himself temperamentally unsuited for the toughest job in politics, quite apart from his “happy warrior” policy adventurism, mis-wired political antenna or campaign stuff-ups. It screams from his Diaries: by the time of the election, Latham was under siege from media investigating a constant stream of salacious allegations from his first wife, hospitalised by life-threatening pancreatitis and, with two young sons, simply aching for his family. Shorten, on the other hand, has been in the job five years, been through one election campaign, and has had everything thrown at him, including a FourCorners investigation of his time at the AWU, and a royal commission. It may be the most gruelling Opposition leadership stint ever. A bit like Howard in 1988 – when the Bulletin’s cover read “Mr 18%: why on earth does this man bother?” – Shorten is so unpopular, and so unfazed by it, it’s almost admirable.
Shorten is highly pragmatic, unlike the idealistic Latham. But Shorten, like Latham, has embraced a brave policy agenda. In Latham’s case, it was early childhood education and defunding elite private schools; Medicare Gold; bringing our troops back from Iraq by Christmas; saving the Tassie forests; plus the glow of wins from Opposition, like abolishing lucrative parliamentary super and amending the US–Australia Free Trade Agreement to protect the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. In Shorten’s case, we have policy bravery in the form of opposing across-the-board personal and company income tax cuts; restricting negative gearing and winding back super rorts like cash refunds for unused franking credits; challenging the Fair Work Commission to bring back penalty rates; a federal ICAC; and – potentially – blocking a National Energy Guarantee that actually impedes Australia’s ability to respond to climate change. There are also courage-free zones, of course – for example, the indefinite detention of refugees, big brother surveillance laws, Newstart and over-funded private schools – but taken as a whole, the Shorten platform is no small target.
Sure, Shorten is not Latham, Turnbull is not Howard, and 2018 is not 2004. But Latham’s defeat is a cautionary tale: the lesson of 2004 may be that there is no point getting credit for policy bravery from the political class, or the party’s grassroots – Latham did both of those things – then losing the election.
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Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
On July 31, 2004, then Opposition leader Mark Latham wrote in his diary: “We can’t win.” It was still months before the looming federal election was called, before the infamous domineering handshake with John Howard. What brought on this fit of pessimism? As TheLatham Diaries record, Labor’s two-party lead had shrunk from 55–45 to 51–49; voters were trending back towards the government. Labor’s idealistic, gutsy policy adventurism had failed to gain traction. The hip pocket ruled in a surging economy and, combined with niggling doubts about Labor’s competence on national security, the accumulated anger against a third-term government dissipated in a devil-you-know decision. With today’s Fairfax-Ipsos poll the latest to put...