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It's Time: Why The ALP Caucus Should Elect Latham

December 1, 2003

Mark Latham, MHR for Werriwa Thirty-one years ago, Gough Whitlam, the man who coined the expression "crash through or crash", delivered his policy speech for the 1972 election. Campaigning for the first change of government in 23 years, Whitlam argued "It's Time". When the ALP Caucus meets on December 2, 2003, it would do well to remember Whitlam's words all those years ago at the Blacktown Civic Centre in Sydney's western suburbs, the area where Labor struggles electorally today. Whitlam said:

"The decision we will make for our country on 2 December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time. It's time for a new team, a new program, a new drive for equality of opportunities: it's time to create new opportunities for Australians, time for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation for our nation and the region in which we live."
By their votes tomorrow, the 92 members of the Labor caucus have an opportunity to make one of those decisive choices that fundamentally alter the political landscape. In the words of the Canberra Times today: "The next 24 hours are all about guts. As Alfred Deakin put it, you can't creep the chasm. But will the Labor Caucus take the plunge and opt for the generational change in Mark Latham, or will it take the more comfortable route: Kim Beazley? The polls will be scaring plenty of people, despite many in Caucus who are saying popularity contests just don't matter when it comes to the deliberations of the federal parliamentary Labor Party."

Why should they vote for Latham? As Michael Duffy says in today's Daily Telegraph:

"It's got to be Mark Latham. That doesn't mean it will be. Just that it ought to be.

"Simon Crean was not Labor's biggest problem. He's just the big problem that's been hiding the really big problem, the fact that the ALP has no intellectual base.

"We don't know what it stands for. We don't know what its policy will be on anything that comes up, except that it will disagree with the Government in some often stupid knee-jerk reaction.

"I don't claim to be the first person to make this observation. There were the couple of dozen people I heard on talkback yesterday, and the couple of thousand others who have made the same point over the past year: what in God's name does Labor stand for?

"Just this week we've seen Labor arguing publicly about whether it believes in universal health coverage or not. About whether people earning up to $80,000 need tax breaks or not.

"Sure, these are important points and Labor needs to debate them. The problem is, the debates should have occurred long ago, after Kim Beazley replaced Paul Keating in 1996.

"Beazley has a lot to answer for. He is responsible for the intellectual impoverishment of a once-great party. So what are some in that party now proposing to do? Give him a third chance, naturally.

"As Labor is destined to lose the next election no matter who's leading it, this would make him both a policy dunce and a three-times loser by this time next year. Exactly what the ALP needs to get it back on its feet!

"Sydney leads Australia in many ways, including housing prices. Mark Latham is the only person on Labor's frontbench who understands Sydney. I don't mean the moaning, whingeing inner-city Sydney of the Left, but the 90 per cent of the place that's full of energy and does want to go places.

"Latham understands that part of the city. He grew up in one of the most exciting areas of it and has seen the southwest transformed in his lifetime. He is in touch with the new Australia. No union hack, he was mayor of Liverpool and introduced new ideas of government to the council. Latham knows how to run things.

"Latham is also a thinker. He has ideas. Lots of ideas. Too many ideas at times, and on occasion they contradict each other. But many of them are good ideas, much better than anything most of his colleagues have put on the table.

"Put Latham in charge of ALP policy and you just might get something that Australians will actually want to vote for one day.

"Latham is also a maddie. He likes a drink, tackles taxi drivers and uses bad language.

"But having said that, most of the time he's actually a mild and reasonable bloke. He has also calmed down considerably since becoming a father and shadow treasurer.

"He's a man who thrives on hard work and lots of it. These days he might even be a reformed larrikin, a species of politician which Australians hold in high regard.

"Latham's biggest problem is that he has difficulties with the ALP machine. He has no union power base. Some of the NSW right support Beazley rather than him. He fell out with Bob Carr years ago.

"But he also has powerful friends. He talks to Paul Keating, a Labor man with whom he has much in common. Keating was not, like Latham, a schoolboy rugby and cricket champion and dux of his school. But Keating combined ferocity with ability and a facility with words, and displayed a great capacity to grow in the job.

"Within Parliament, Laurie Brereton is a Latham supporter. Outside, this week Gough Whitlam said that he believed Latham, who once worked for him, should succeed Crean.

"Latham's also a human being and has the rare knack of presenting a fully-rounded personality in public. Voters like this.

"It sets him apart from other admirable frontbenchers like Kevin Rudd. Perhaps it's time for the ALP to consider selecting a leader whom voters might actually like in large numbers?

"Maybe Latham is not terrifically well-known at the moment. But of all the likely contenders for the leaders job, he has the most potential.

"Of course there is a risk with electing the 42-year-old Latham leader of the ALP, successor to Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke. He might stuff it up. But he might do it better than anyone else now on offer.

"And at least it wouldn't ever be boring."

So what is wrong with re-electing Kim Beazley? In the words of the Canberra Times on November 29:
"One question which the new leader will have to address, immediately, is where the party stands on refugee rights. If the new leader is to be Beazley, he must face the fact that the policy, if it can be called that, he took on the issue at the last election is the primary reason why many natural Labor supporters now treat him with contempt, even disgust. Nor have many, if any, of those people been wooed back by the slogans of Julia Gillard. For some, it is actually a moral matter. Others might not be so stringent, but, even in political terms, saw the shameful pragmatism as an utter betrayal of Labor ideals. It is said more than half of the registered members of the party did not vote for federal Labor in 2001. That sentiment seems reflected in the way the party's first membership plebiscite produced a presidential panel composed of deep critics of the policy. Beazley has so far blustered, or been simply defensive on this issue. If he does not address the issue from the start, it seems hardly likely his accession will cause a wave of optimism in Labor's ranks. And if it cannot do that, there is precious chance of his appealing to a wider electorate."
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