8 December 2003

The end of political orthodoxy

Latham presents himself a stranger in a strange land, an outer suburban boy who worked his way to where he is, and who, as an outsider, calls it as he sees it in the nation and the polity that has been shaped by John Howard.

Everything about the Howard orthodoxy is predicated on the safe pair of hands argument, an experienced leader providing economic certainty in a frightening international climate. It's a powerful prescription.

But everything loses its lustre eventually. The American public faced a similar formulation in 1992, with the experienced Washington insider George Bush the elder facing off the younger, brash, outsider Bill Clinton. Clinton won that election by putting forward an audacious economic and social plan while providing an unflinching critique of the present. Interestingly, Clinton was also subjected to a sustained attack over what was referred to as the character issue, just as Latham is.

We will see how Latham's leadership will play out. But it is difficult to see how choosing Latham over Beazley, the experienced loser, was a crazy gamble, as some have suggested. As Ron Barassi told his players before they walked on to the MCG to win the 1977 premiership, the greatest risk is to take no risks at all.

Even if Labor is defeated at next year's election, it will have lost on its own terms and not those of the man it underestimated so grievously back in 1996.

The government has done a great job of projecting Iron Mark onto centre stage. It's also done a fantastic job of projecting its own prejudices into exactly the same place. Abbot's extraordinary play for the non-divorcee vote may tell us more about Abbot than about how the Australian people feel on divorce. That can only be very bad news for the coalition.

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