Tough love

The interesting, and probably enduring, thing about The Latham Diaries is not Mark Latham’s critique of the Labor Party, or even what the book tells about his own self-centredness and self-destructiveness. What might endure is the funeral pyre of the ‘climb the ladder of opportunity’ Laborism that Latham tried, without great success, to articulate.

Latham genuinely saw himself as a Third Way politician, reaching for the images he sought to evoke about himself and the modern Labor Party. The ladder stuff, and his projection of himself as a disadvantaged working-class boy made good and wanting to make it better for others, was critical to this. So also was the phrase he once blurted out, then later bowdlerised, of his mother’s once telling him that there are two types of people in the world: the workers and the bludgers.

Labor was going to shed all of this bleeding-heart stuff of being the party of the underclasses, the whingers, the work-shy and the welfare lobbies. It was, rather, the party of the aspirational working man who wanted a decent education for his kids, a healthy fun environment and rewards for effort. Not a party without compassion, of course, but with warmth and energy for the strivers and the triers, and punishments as well for those who wouldn’t shape up. Aborigines? Well, they were disadvantaged and needed some extra help to climb on to the ladder of opportunity, but only so as to put them in an equal place. Refugees? Well, they were just criminals at the end of the day, weren’t they?

This was the Mark Latham and the Labor Party packaged for the last election, even if the disparagement of the poor was sotto voce. This was the Labor and the Latham who failed, even against a government which had shown every sign of having had its run. And which was, of course, not only reaching out, with much the same narrative, to the constituencies Latham claimed to be able to speak for, but doing so with far more conspicuous success. And, with that success, developing not only a new lease of political life but a radical new agenda not only for industrial relations changes but revolution in the welfare system.

Indeed, it is the welfare-to-work agenda that will mark the Howard Government far more than any industrial relations changes it is able to push through. Some have underrated it, in part because of Howard’s cunning at the time it was announced in the budget context. Large sections of existing welfare recipients were ‘grandfathered out’; the changes, when they come into effect next July, will affect only new recipients. That muffled the squalls, or the capacities of the lobbies to present an array of pitiful cases of people who would be demonstrably worse off. But the generosity of the initial exceptions is to be more than paid for by the ideological purity of the new rules which, if they work, will transform not only the welfare system but Australian society.

If they work. It’s all about work, and, in particular, the firm conviction of the Cabinet that work of any sort is better than a benefit. The attack is particularly focused on those of the welfare generations so long off payrolls that their children have seen no examples of getting up to go to work each morning, or the steady, ennobling and dignifying processes of earning one’s own way. Nor is it only about getting people work-ready, in the sense of mechanically cycling them through make-work projects until they build up work habits and learn that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

In the tough talk and hairy-chestedness of the committees there is none of this nonsense about training options, or letting people stay on welfare by going off to university or whatever. Training money, so far as there will be any of it, will be only for show, and at least one remove from the primary object: to wean people off welfare. And if we can’t make the bludgers work, we will make their lives so much more difficult by requiring them to traipse daily from potential job to potential job, with documentation of their efforts, that some of them will seek jobs just for relief.

This tough love, of course, is for the good of the demoralised underclasses. Ask any aspirational voter of the sort Mark Latham claimed to represent. They didn’t get where they were by hanging around Centrelink! The quality of their lives comes from their own efforts. Sure, we want governments to provide schools and hospitals and better services, but frankly, we are all a bit jack of all of these whingers who think the primary role of government is to send them a cheque each week. Really, it might be tough for a while, but it would be for their own good to be cast into the cold hard world. Especially some of those single mums whose mothers were single mums and whose children have never had a role model of someone who ever had to work for a living. You can imagine how it will be pitched.

So will John Howard call it compassionate conservatism? Not on your nelly. He’ll be pitching it pretty much as Third Way stuff of the sort that Mark Latham was forever implying. And Kim Beazley may even be too distracted to fight it hard. First, he will be on the mission of his life to water down the industrial relations legislation that critically threatens his patrons. And he will be asking party strategists: how much of this, in place before we take power, will actually help us when we are in power? The answer, from the sort of people he listens to, might well be: quite a bit. If it ever takes power.  

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



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