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Mark Latham's War on Everything


Paul KeatingPerhaps the clearest indication of the underwhelming torpor that has become the defining feature of this seemingly endless federal election campaign is the fact that its highlights have been provided by the luminaries of Labor past — Paul Keating and Mark Latham.

In June it was Paul Keating's virtuoso explanation of the key reforms undertaken by himself and Bob Hawke: the internationalisation of the Australian economy through tariff reduction and the floating of the dollar, and the suppression of wages — and consequent capping of inflation — through the Price and Incomes Accord. These bold reforms, said Keating, were 'natural structural stabilisers'. Keating likened them to 'a set of pneumatic rams' that 'adjust each week to economic conditions'.

When Keating accepted the invitation to launch Greg Combet's bid for the seat of Charleton he reiterated that it was his reforms, endorsed and enabled by the trade unions, that fixed inflation at around three per cent and laid the foundation for the future stability of the Australian economy. When Peter Costello inherited the job, Keating claimed, he had nothing left to do except enjoy the fruits of Keating's own labour and not blow the budget.

But Keating did more than just rip a gaping hole in the Liberals' economic façade. He also exposed Kevin Rudd's retreat to the supposed safe ground of 'economic conservatism', along with his parroting of the Liberal mantra: budget surplus, low interest rates, personal tax cuts. Indeed, the net effect of Keating's interventions was to further dwarf the already Lilliputian intelligentsia of modern Labor, demoting Rudd and Shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan to the rank of fiscal imbeciles unable and unwilling to take the economic fight to the Coalition.

The cold reality of Australia's much-celebrated economic growth, particularly as it concerns the electorate, is that it is fuelled by an unsustainable housing boom, driven by avarice, and maintained by federal ineptitude. As Andrew Charlton has demonstrated in his brilliant book, Ozonomics, the accrual of the current budget surplus has been at the expense of skyrocketing personal debt.

According to Charlton, the Howard/Costello duo has merely displaced public debt onto the electorate by means of the sale of public assets, the availability of cheap credit and the absurd buoyancy of the housing market. And now that we are beginning to see stress fractures in the economic edifice, the government's solution — progressive tax cuts — is but a short-term pseudo-response, a way of injecting more money into an already saturated economy, thus artificially propping up a fragile prosperity.

Keating's point was that it is only in this kind of economic environment, overladen with record levels of personal debt that interest rates can define the electoral landscape in the way they have. But Keating insists it is Labor's fault to have allowed the Liberals to get away with this ruse. He questions why interest rates are an issue in this election when they were not in 1990, 1993 or 1996. 'The answer is because of the Labor Party's inability to get across the argument and put it.'

Mark LathamThe startling fact is that, due to unprecedented levels of personal debt, Australian families are actually paying more interest under Howard/Costello than they did under Hawke/Keating. But instead of addressing this, calling the government's bluff and exposing its fiscal short-sightedness, Rudd has, quite simply, pandered to this well-ensconced culture of avarice and debt-addiction, without putting forward any alternative economic program, much less a vision for social cohesion, mutual beneficence, and moral substance.

It is only in contrast to Rudd's lack of vision that we can appreciate the brilliance of Mark Latham's piece in The Australian Financial Review. There remains an integrity, a self-evident rightness, about his observations that cannot be obscured by the media's sensationalist reporting of them.

'Some people, of course, still argue that Australia is a generous and egalitarian nation. At election time the truth is brutally exposed. Through their polling, the two major parties have identified the values and fears of middle class Australia ... Labor and Liberal are simply following their polling and public opinion: more money for private schools, more money for private housing and more money for private spending through tax cuts and middle-class welfare. The dominant ethos is greed, not generosity.'

Dennis Glover (Latham's former speech-writer) has accused Latham of being apolitical, of peddling an embittered pessimism. But far from himself being apolitical, Latham insists that Australian politics itself has become apolitical.

Politics has abandoned the belief that has historically defined Labor's intellectual leaders — that it can actually make a difference in people's lives and shape our national soul. Instead, it has contented itself with squabbling over manufactured crises and pandering to the electorate's fears, engaging in 'a bit of media melodrama' and capitalising on social disintegration.

If anything, this election campaign — with Rudd's craven adoption of 'Howardonomics' and the massive electoral swing toward Labor — confirms the depth of the complicity between popular avarice and political cynicism. But it also confirms the correctness of the personal realisation that finally drove Latham from public office: 'Cynicism is the gold standard of modern politics, the public discount all the words and go for self-interest.' Ultimately, Latham didn't lose faith in politics, but in the capacity of the Australian people to give a damn.

Scott StephensScott Stephens is an author and theologian who lives in Brisbane, Queensland. He is the co-editor (with Rex Butler) and translator of the two volumes of the selected writings of Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real and The Universal Exception.





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Existing comments

How quickly we demonise the fallen from the past, including Latham. Perhaps Latham's 'pariah' status makes us realise how much we worship the golden calf. This election circus is the worst campaign on both sides.

roger borrell | 15 November 2007  

As a brief follow-up to this piece, Mark Latham's piece in this weekend's Australian Financial Review was another remarkable contribution to this otherwise sterile campaign. In it, he endorsed the counter-intuitive position that American-style voluntary voting would be a tremendous advance for Australian politics, because it would divest the apathetic 1/3 of current voters from their inordinate influence in deciding elections. It would, Latham says, then empower those who actually engage with politics and produce real campaigns that address issues of moral substance rather simply appealing to fear and avarice. It's high-time we overcome our revulsion to Latham and recognise him as a timely voice worth listening to - indeed, one of the great Labor intellectuals of the past half century.

Scott Stephens | 20 November 2007  

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