Gloves on

Of all the comments made after Mark Latham’s surprise ascension to the Labor leadership, Paul Keating’s remark—that it represented a defeat for the bankrupt ALP factional system and its operatives—was the most sound. All but two of the factional chieftains (John Faulkner, from the left in NSW, and Kim il Carr, from the left in Victoria) had voted to put Kim Beazley into the leadership. The ALP machine in every state bar Victoria and Tasmania is under the strong control of men who desperately wanted Beazley in the job. Nor had they taken his victory for granted, even if they had assumed he would win. Every politician whose preselection was capable of being upset by a block of Transport Workers Union or Australian Workers Union votes was threatened, and by people who mean even now to deliver on their promises.

Some of the old hacks put more effort into getting Kim Beazley up than they had in trying to install their own children, or spouses, in safe seats in parliament. The hardened factional chiefs in parliament who had decided that the Simon Crean show was terminal, their union overlords who control the big branches, the relentless party apparatchiks in state branch secretaryships who had been leaking damaging poll results to undermine Crean, and the reflexive plotters, schemers and finaglers, such as Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan and Stephen Conroy, were all on the wrong side when the votes were counted. Even Carmen Lawrence voted for the man whose moral compromises in 2001 had rendered the party, in the minds of many who voted for her as party president, unfit for government.

Mark Latham has been in a forgiving mood, pretending to welcome Stephen Smith back to the front bench. In January, however, he faces a national party conference which will be controlled by the forces he has just defeated—indeed, the same forces that Carmen Lawrence had just defeated, had anyone wanted any evidence that the party machines are on the nose, even with paid-up Labor members.

But the controlling factions are not of a mood to surrender their power lightly, least of all on the economic issues where Latham must make an impact with the electorate. The chieftains enjoy most of their power from patronage and corruption at state government level, and there Labor is comfortably entrenched.
Of course not all of those who campaigned against him did so because they were in thrall to the old factional system. Some don’t like Latham or don’t trust his personal or political instincts or his self-discipline. While he has some capacities as a salesman, a fighter and a thinker, he is impatient with party process, with talking and negotiating, and, particularly, with listening. A man who could easily trip over a foot put there by the government or by enemies inside his own party.

The conclusion that the risks with Latham outweighed the benefits was not difficult to reach. For many, however, the idea that the best alternative on offer was Beazley was too much to stomach, particularly since Beazley has not been associated with a new idea in years.

Mark Latham has not had a personality transplant, but was not only surprisingly impressive in his first outings but showed some signs that he is not going to allow his enemies to work off his weaknesses.

He immediately pleased two important constituencies to whom impressions and a general sense of direction are more important than detail. His first pitch, at the aspirational voter, was not in the language of the whinge or a coalition of the dispossessed but of class advancement. ‘I stand for the things I’ve been doing all my life—working hard, trying to climb that ladder of opportunity, working hard, studying hard,’ he said. ‘I believe in an upwardly mobile society where people can climb the ladder of opportunity to a better life for themselves and their family. I believe in hard work.’

And his second was at a wider constituency within the party itself. Latham has no particular reputation for empathy with the underclasses, for fashionable left-wing causes, for Aborigines or refugees. Within his first week, however, he had said more effective words identifying with all of these struggles, and locating them under the Labor umbrella, than his two predecessors have in eight years.

His efforts have produced a mood swing in Labor circles, and made everyone realise that victory in 2004, if unlikely, is far from impossible. Latham may actually benefit more from a damaging stoush than by maintaining a veneer of unity with those who had practically destroyed the party as any sort of movement, or academy of ideas, or ideals, or anything, in fact, other than a place to exercise power.

The idea that a Labor conference ought to be a choreographed public display, with policies already agreed behind closed doors, is actually new. Perhaps it is a development on the old, tiny, closed conferences of the early 1960s. But between then, and the packaged pap of the ’80s and ’90s, were out-in-the-open brawls of conferences in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Sure, they showed division, open animosities and public bloodletting. But the debates sharpened policy and created discipline and cohesion once consensus was reached. Latham is a disciple of Whitlam, who thrived in such confrontations and benefited in the public eye by being seen to down those opposed to him.                  

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.

 

 

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