Daily Media Quotation
Labor Christmas Without Presence
December 6, 2004
by Steve Lewis - The Australian
"Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light,
From now on our troubles,
Will be out of sight."
Four days. Just four more days before Parliament rises for the Christmas break after what has been a gruelling, extraordinary political year. For Mark Latham and a dispirited, disjointed Labor Party, this merry little Christmas break can't come fast enough.
Twelve months ago, the newly elected Opposition Leader was busy establishing his political credentials and winning popular support with a series of well-targeted announcements that caught a cocky Government off-guard.
Measures to cut back MPs' superannuation, mothball the Prime Minister's Kirribilli residence and back the Government's tougher law enforcement rules - they struck a chord with voters and helped Latham secure healthy approval ratings. After two years of battling leadership shenanigans, Labor was back in the game. Opposition MPs trotted off to their electorates surprisingly upbeat that their new and inexperienced leader would give them a shot at the title. Oh, how things have changed.
A decent number of Labor MPs returning to Canberra today believe Latham's leadership is terminal. They share the views of figures such as former national secretary Bob Hogg and Sydney-based social commentator Adele Horin - that the Member for Werriwa is unelectable. Full stop.
And yet there are others, including a number on the Labor frontbench, who want Latham given more time to prove he has what it takes. They believe he can regroup after Christmas and regain his appeal and authority. Thus, the Labor Party heads into the Christmas break completely polarised, gripped by a sense of despair that will not be improved by Bob McMullan's intervention yesterday.
McMullan, a former frontbencher and one-time ALP national secretary, is considered a cautious individual. But he and Latham had a falling-out post-election over issues that have never been properly explained. There were suggestions yesterday that McMullan was penalised for "leaking" during the campaign, although he was appointed as one of two official spokesmen for the duration (Stephen Smith being the other). Appearing yesterday on the Ten Network's nationally televised Meet the Press McMullan added fuel to the leadership fire. Oh, how he did.
Just days after Queensland Premier Peter Beattie called on the federal caucus to sort out the leadership issue once and for all, McMullan issued his own advice: that now is not the time for this to happen. Instead, he said Latham should be given time to go away and "rebuild some momentum" into the new year.
But he pointedly targeted February, when Parliament resumes and the political machinery starts to gear up, as the date when Latham's leadership will be carefully scrutinised, or as he put it Labor MPs will "have a long, hard look".
As to suggestions that he was putting Latham "on notice', McMullan responded: "We just can't go on talking about it and muttering about it for years.
"But I don't think this is the right time to be trying to bring it to a head."
There's a few of McMullan's colleagues who wouldn't mind his head in the wake of this very public intervention. McMullan was fully aware that his carefully chosen comments would only add fuel to the leadership fire, adding to the sense of resentment and distrust within an already dysfunctional Labor caucus. I'm sure McMullan will hear this view from some of his colleagues today as Labor prepares for the final week of parliamentary sittings.
Part of the tragedy of Labor's internal turmoil is that the Government is avoiding all of the scrutiny that it should be over its election profligacy. Labor warned that the $66billion spending spree throughout this year would rebound. These warnings have been given added resonance given the comments over the past week from respected economists such as Ross Garnaut and Access Economics' Chris Richardson. They have both raised the spectre of slowing exports leaving the economy "stuck in the slow lane" during 2005.
Even the Prime Minister bought into the economic debate yesterday, backing Peter Costello's call for parents to issue love rather than gifts to their children this Christmas.
It seems somewhat of a double standard given the Government's election excess, where it showered "gifts" on every conceivable constituency - and then had the gall to claim Labor posed a bigger threat to interest rates. And don't be fooled for one minute. Senior Coalition figures know they are getting off lightly because of Labor's internal woes.
There is little sign of Labor's leadership disquiet being resolved soon. Maybe Latham will gain traction in early 2005 and put the doubters in their place. More likely though, Labor's post-election blues will carry on well into the New Year.
Have a merry little Christmas, indeed.
Steve Lewis is the Chief political reporter on The Australian.