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Latham: Positive Approach Failed Labor In 2004 Election

In his first major speech since the October 9 election, the Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham, has claimed that the ALP’s positive approach to the election campaign contributed to its defeat.

Addressing the ALP State Conference in Tasmania, Latham said: “The sheer weight of this campaign broke through in the last week and sent us backwards. I believe with the benefit of hindsight … that my greatest misjudgement was in believing that the positive party would win the election.”

Transcript of Mark Latham’s Address to the Tasmanian State ALP Conference

LathamThanks very much for your welcome, to Nick Sherry, Kerry O’Brien and my other Federal Parliamentary colleagues, to the Premier Paul Lennon and his State colleagues, delegates to this conference, ladies and gentlemen.

I want to thank everyone who worked so hard in the recent Federal Election campaign, especially our candidates in the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was of course a tough campaign in all the circumstances, but the movement worked hard and did as much as possible to try and assist the election of a Federal Labor Government. Of course it was not to be. We can have an assessment of the areas where we need to improve. That is important of course to be honest about the reasons why we didn’t win. But it is also important to look forward to the future and do our best to build Labor policy for the campaign in 2007.

One advantage I have as Federal Leader, it that there is never any shortage of free advice. There is plenty of it and I have received plenty, especially after the Federal Election loss. The columnists of course, they try to fill their space with an original point of view and interpretation. But I’ve got to say, some of this commentary leads to some very strange opinions. In the past couple of weeks, I have heard that I lost the election because I hugged Gough Whitlam, because I shook John Howard’s hand, because I’m not a born again Christian and because I didn’t talk enough about refugees and reconciliation. Well all of it of course is silly self serving commentary. In truth the politics of the 2004 Federal Election can be summarised in two basic propositions.

The first is that it is exceptionally hard in Australia to change the government during a long period of economic growth and. The advantages in modern politics of incumbency (Federal and State) are quite substantial.

Our political success earlier in the year came from shifting the agenda onto the big social issues: early childhood development, community-building, public health, educational opportunity and family policy.

These issues remain important to the Australian people and as a movement, we must continue to advance Labor’s alternative approach.

The second proposition, the election campaign itself was characterised by cross-currents. Our positive, issue-based campaigning on health and education was nudging the Labor vote upwards. As was acknowledged at the time, we did quite well in the free-media part of the campaign.

Where we lost badly, however, was in the paid-advertising campaign. Our Liberal opponents spent a record amount of money on attack ads — blitzing the airwaves with a fear campaign on economic management and interest rates.

This was the ultimate in retail politics — pulling down the Labor vote through TV advertising. As the Federal Director of the Liberal Party said earlier this week, their efforts “would make a commercial organisation envious.”

The sheer weight of this campaign broke through in the last week and sent us backwards. I believe with the benefit of hindsight, which is always a wonderful thing to have at this point — that my greatest misjudgement was in believing that the positive party would win the election.

Unashamedly, I wanted Labor to appeal to hope and opportunity in the electorate. To argue the case for a fairer and more progressive society. To give people a clear choice in the key areas of education, health and the environment.

Millions of Australians voted for this approach. But many more, a clear democratic majority, went the other way.

As a Party and a movement, our task now is to learn from the judgement of the Australian people.

After four election losses in a row, we need to be brutally honest about the changing nature of Australian society and its economy, and the ways in which the Federal Labor Party must change.

Our choice is simple: we can either move with the times or be swept away by them.

We need to be frank and honest about economic policy in particular. Since 1996 we have not handled the economic debate well. This is one of the sad ironies of Australian politics.

Having secured nation-building reforms through the Hawke and Keating Governments – the internationalisation of the Australian economy and all the benefits that have flowed through to states like Tasmania as outlined by the Premier – we in fact surrendered our legacy after the 1996 election. We failed to defend our economic record, precisely at the time when these reforms established the foundations for a new era of growth and prosperity.

I think John Howard could hardly believe his luck. Having squibbed the tough decisions as Malcolm Fraser’s Treasurer, he watched Labor modernise the economy and hand its benefits to him on a platter.

Our Party has not recovered from this error. We haven’t been able to reclaim our legacy of economic modernisation from the 80s and 90s. Nor have we, in the eyes of the electorate, successfully crafted a new generation of reforms and credibility.

As a result, our base — political and industrial — has steadily declined. Labor’s federal primary vote has fallen well below 40 per cent while, in the industrial wing of the movement, trade union membership has also fallen away.

We urgently need to establish a new basis for the economic purpose and legitimacy of the Labor movement. We need to be realistic about the changes happening around us right around the country.

After a decade of economic growth and globalisation, the two fastest growing classes in Australian society are the middle class and the underclass.

The conventional working class — in steady, semi-skilled and low-paid jobs — has declined. Just look at the affluence of the traditional trades in the mining, construction and service industries. In many cases, they make enough money to be investors, not just workers — this is the nature of the new economy.

The new middle class is here to stay, with its army of contractors, consultants, franchises and small businesspeople. This reflects the decentralised nature of the modern economy, where flexible niche production has replaced the organising principles of mass production.

The implications for the Labor movement are quite obvious. Workers are more independent and self-reliant. Large, centralised institutions and policies are less relevant. Our economic policies need to be based on the principles of flexibility, enterprise and upward mobility.

At the other end of the scale, under the Howard Government, the number of people permanently excluded from the new economy has also grown. This is reflected in record levels of long term unemployment and poverty, plus the extraordinary growth in health-related problems, such as disability and mental illness. The Government has neglected these people, under-investing in their skills and potential.

This is the stunning inequality of the modern economy and the society around us. Those with skills and opportunities thrive, while those without are left at the bottom of society — denied the advantages of a regular life.

The challenge for Labor, the challenge for our party, is to develop an economic agenda that assists both groups: policies that reward the hard work and enterprise of the new aspirational middle class, while also overcoming the punishing cycle of underclass and inequality.

The common theme is upward mobility:

  • Developing new skills and creativity;
  • Ending financial disincentives and poverty traps;
  • Reforming economic institutions to foster enterprise and flexibility;
  • Always lifting productivity and competitiveness;
  • And in terms of individual effort: providing opportunity, but also demanding responsibility — a society based on self-improvement and social justice.

These are the values that will drive Labor’s economic policies in this term of parliament and beyond.

I want a rising tide of economic growth to lift all boats — meeting the aspirations of the middle class, while also providing new life opportunities for the poor. This is how I see social justice: as upward mobility all-round, that rising tide lifting all the boats providing upward mobility around — lifting people up — meeting their aspirations in the middle class but ensuring that we end the terrible poverty and underclass that has been left to us by the Howard Government in so many parts of the country.

And only Labor can deliver this great national goal — economic opportunity for all Australians. The Liberals have given up on the poor. They see no political or economic advantage in helping them.

Labor has a different view — we won’t give up on them – it comes not just from our commitment to a fairer society. As a nation we need to recognise, we can’t afford to waste the potential and skills of any Australians. To maximise our national economic growth and efficiency, we need the participation of all Australians. We need an inclusive economy as the basis of a fair society.

I want Labor to set the agenda for the next generation of competition and productivity improvements in the Australian economy. We achieved the first wave of productivity gains under the Hawke and Keating Governments. Now we must achieve the second.

Productivity is the key. It builds profitability and higher living standards.

It allows industry and employment to expand. It can deliver real wage increases in a low inflationary — low interest rate environment.

Under the Howard Government, productivity has been disappointing, with marginal gains over the past five years. The Liberals have no new economic agenda, other than their reckless spending spree that they set out in the last campaign.

Over the next three years, I expect major differences to emerge between the parties on economic policy.

Labor will maintain it’s commitment to stronger fiscal responsibility than the Government — making significant budget savings and putting downward pressure on interest rates.

We will also advance our agenda for education, training and research as the key drivers of economic growth.

The Howard Government has under-invested in education and failed to solve critical skill shortages in the economy. We need a skills revival in Australia, especially through the development of a world-class TAFE system.

Labor will also persist with its strategy, announced during the campaign, to end the poverty trap and move people from welfare to work — expanding prosperity through increased participation and labour market opportunities.

For eight years the Howard Government has neglected this issue. Only Labor is committed to tackling the entrenchment of long-term unemployment and economic exclusion in our society.

And when it comes to competitive private sector markets, we believe in overhauling the Trade Practices Act and supporting small business — compared to the Government’s preference for centralised markets and the dominance of a big business.

In this term of parliament, we will also develop a new agenda for micro-economic reform, especially in infrastructure. This means ending the National Party’s pork-barrelling and increasing the efficiency of our road, rail, port, energy and communications systems.

Scarce public resources need to be allocated on economic grounds, not political. This helps to lower business costs and increase productivity. Australia, right around the country, urgently needs a national plan for infrastructure efficiency. And that will be developed by the Labor Party.

This is an important way of improving Australia’s export performance — another neglected area under the Howard Government. For the past 12 quarters, net exports have detracted from Australia’s economic growth — a record period of failure that must be corrected.

In industrial relations, big policy differences will also emerge. The Government undoubtedly will use its Senate majority to further deregulate the labour market — its dog-eat-dog system of individual contracts.

Labor’s emphasis will be on enterprise bargaining: cooperative arrangements in the workplace that build productivity, underpinned by a safety net for our most vulnerable workers. We want flexibility with fairness in Australian workplaces.

We also want the industrial relations system to help people with the right balance between work and family. This is good for staff morale and productivity.

It’s another example of how progressive enterprise agreements can benefit both employers and employees — in this case, respecting the rights of working parents.

And the other big economic issue: more needs to be done to overcome Australia’s housing affordability crisis. Under the current government, we have suffered from negative household savings, record levels of household debt and a collapse in first home ownership.

People are now asking: if interest rates are so low, how come so many Australians are struggling to own their own home? Labor will address this problem with new programs and assistance for housing affordability.

We advanced part of this economic agenda in the last campaign. We spoke about the importance of hard work, incentive, participation and productivity. But now we need to do more. So much more to restore our economic credentials and reputation in the eyes of the Australian people.

Well on social policy, particularly health and education, we are on stronger ground. So much so that even though the election is over, the Tories are still campaigning against our schools policy and Medicare Gold. They are trying to use the methodology of the campaign to make us back away from good Labor policy. Well I can assure you, I can assure this conference, that is the last thing we are going to do. We are not going to give up on good Labor policy, especially in the areas of health and education where we had things right and we were winning the support and confidence of the Australian people on social policy.

We ran on a modern, progressive Labor platform, rejecting the Howard Government’s user pays approach to health and education. For instance our plan to increase the availability of bulk billing would have substantially lowered out of pocket expenses for patients. The Government responded with a 1.8 billion dollar policy to increase the Medicare rebate to 100 percent. But as soon as the election was over, within days of the polling being completed, the Government allowed most of the money to be eaten up by increased doctor fees. More user pays in health by the Howard Government.

Well delegates, I don’t want to see the Americanisation of our social services, where it becomes so expensive that only the wealthy can access them. We need opportunity and service access for all Australians.

And this is one of the defining differences in Australian politics. The Liberals believe in user pays and privatisation, Labor believes in public access and opportunity. While we don’t require health and education services to be provided exclusively by the public sector, we want them to be publicly affordable. That’s why we believe in extending the principles of public education into the childcare and preschool systems, affordable learning programs for our infant children.

That’s why we believe in a national standard for schools funding. Resourcing Australian all schools, Government and non-Government on the basis of need. Improving educational access and opportunity for 95 percent Australian students. Meeting their aspirations and those of their parents and you hear some methodology and nonsense about our schools policy, I proudly stand here today and say that it was right. It was right to say that schools that have not even got libraries and computers need more funding, and those schools that have got rifle ranges and boat sheds can afford to make some of the share. Some of the reallocation to bring all the Australian schools up to a decent national standard, it was the right thing to do.

Delegates, it is why we believe in affordable higher education and continue to oppose the Howard Government’s $100,000 university degrees. It is why we believe in increasing the bulk billing rate, one of the foundation stones of Medicare, affordability in health and education. It is why we believe in decent funding of our public hospitals and the creation of a national dental program. It is why we believe in Medicare Gold, expanding Federal responsibility for hospitals for the universal care of our oldest Australians; honouring our senior citizens by getting them off hospital waiting lists.

Now the Liberals of course say that this policy is too ambitious, but we have heard that before, they said that about Medibank and then Medicare. They say that, they always say that about universal health care in general. Because they don’t believe in it. They criticise it because they don’t believe in it. All of his time in the Australian Parliament, Mr Howard has opposed Medibank and then Medicare so he is hardly going to be supporting Medicare Gold. Well Labor believes in these things, we believe in the universality and affordability of health care and we are going to pursue our policies into the future.

We want to honour this commitment in our public and private hospitals in particular for those aged 75 and over. And this is not just about the fairness and decency of our society, it is also efficient health economics. Australia’s health is hopelessly inefficient with overlapping Federal and State responsibilities, and its dual system of public and private funding. Medicare Gold tackles these inefficiencies in four significant ways. First of all, it places responsibility for hospital care and residential care and the care of elderly Australians in the hands of one level of Government, not two. It’s got the potential to save the 500 to 600 million dollars wasted each year under the current system as a result of frail aged patients being stuck in expensive acute hospital beds because there is no availability of nursing home placements and beds.

The second saving and inefficiency we address here is the major savings to fund Medicare Gold come from the better use of the 30% private health insurance rebate. The cost of which has been blowing out since its introduction. Also under Medicare Gold, one buyer for aged hospital care, this is an important reform. It helps to put downward pressure on specialist costs. Downward pressure on specialist costs, that is one of the reasons why the medical trade unions have opposed the policy. Also, the final efficiency gain is that our policy will reduce private hospital insurance costs by at least 12 percent for other age groups; Medicare Gold dramatically lowers the cost for the private health insurance funds.

So, we have much to advance in health and education policy, we’ll have a brisk review of policies on all our key areas by the end of this year. I want a Federal Labor party that starts 2005 out there in the community, engaging, talking, listening and learning, but also advocating the areas where they have good things to say, important things to say to the Australian people about the progress of our country. I want our MP’s and activists at the school gates, talking to parents about how our schools policy would assist their particular school. Nine and a half thousand schools better off with our needs based funding system. I want our MP’s and activists and branch members, talking to young families, talking to the elderly about the importance of our initiatives to increase bulk billing, to establish a national dental program, to restore funding to our public hospitals, to introduce Medicare Gold, these are important thing where we can go forward proudly with our health and education policies and we’ll be doing that in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and making sure the Australian people understand in full the benefits of these policies and the reasons to elect a Labor Government in the future.

Let me turn to the other area that we advanced in the campaign. One of the core values of the modern Party is our commitment to the environment. This is the ultimate inter-generational issue.

A prosperous nation such as ours has a responsibility to pass on our environmental assets to the next generation of young Australians. We are the custodians of their future, their quality of life.

And it would be irresponsible to deny them the benefits of decent air and water quality, as well as the chance to enjoy our great national icons, such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Murray/Darling and our magnificent forests.

Labor is a party of the environment because it is the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do for our children and our grandchildren.

Australians of our generation have a choice:

  • We can sign up for unsustainable industry practices and deplete our resources
  • Or we can accept our responsibility to young Australians and give them something to look forward to: sustainable development and a decent environment in which to live.

This is why, in the last campaign, Labor advanced a new environmental agenda for Australia’s future:

  • Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and establishing a carbon trading system — ensuring that Australia meets its international responsibilities in the fight against global warming, that we take action now to stop the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the flooding of Kakadu National Park with salt water.
  • It was right in the campaign to say that Australia should ratify Kyoto and we will be repeating that time after time because it is the right thing to do for our nation, for our international responsibilities.

We also released policies to:

  • Save the grand old river system, the Murray-Darling
  • To protect our fragile coastline and beaches
  • To Upgrade the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target to 5%
  • And to save the high-conservation value of Tasmanian forests.

We did these things because we thought they were right: right for the environment, right for the next generation.

But inevitably, in a democracy, the people decide what’s right and they decide what’s wrong.

The protest against our forest policy cost us two seats in this State.

We lost two outstanding local members who didn’t deserve to be defeated: Sid Sidebottom and Michelle O’Byrne.

I take responsibility for this result and I’ve conveyed my apology and regret to both Sid and Michelle and thank them for their outstanding service as local constituency members in their State and their fantastic contribution over time to the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

My other responsibility is to lead the Labor Party forward. To be true to our values and beliefs but also, to listen and learn from the judgement of the Australian people.

I have no doubt, absolutely no doubt that our forestry policy was well supported in many parts of Australia. But it wasn’t supported in Bass and Braddon.

We didn’t have it right. The local community wasn’t confident that our plan to upgrade the skills, technology and sustainability of the timber industry was in fact itself sustainable.

Now we need to take the time to get it right. Shadow Cabinet has resolved to review the policy, starting with the development of a sustainable industry plan.

We still intend to protect the high-conservation value forests, but with a more detailed and effective policy for the timber industry.

This is the key to job security, as well as conservation values.

A key statistic for the industry is that 10 years ago — one job relied on one hectare harvested forest – that one job today relies on 5 hectares.

We need to ensure that the industry stops slipping down the value-added chain. That’s what the Premier was talking about earlier on with the pulp mill — value adding downstream processing right here in Tasmania.

When I visited the Gunn’s veneer plant earlier in the year, I saw the machinery, I saw the skills, I saw the technology and I walked away knowing that if we did nothing, if we didn’t have value adding, new skills, new technology, then those workers ran the heavy risk of going the way of other old industries — right out the back door.

I also saw in my visit earlier in the year, the 600 timber artisans with their relatively modest call on the resource, the way in which they were engaged in high value added activities for boat building, the furniture, the arts and the crafts.

We need value-adding and downstream processing, rather than over-reliance on woodchip exports to Japan and Indonesia, some 5 million tons per annum.

If we lift up the value added chain, major conservation initiatives are possible without a net loss of jobs. In fact, real job security lies in this approach. We know this right around the world and right around the Australian economy, real job security lies on up-skilling, new technology and moving up the value added chain. There is no future at the bottom of the food chain in the modern economy. You’ve got to up-skill and go upwards in terms of value adding.

Our election policy would not have denied the industry its basic resource. Our policy left close to 500,000 hectares available to the industry, we wanted to make better use of the resource, that was our point in the investment in the industry plan.

As the Premier has made clear, major value adding projects like the pulp mill do not rely on access to old wood. Best practice is now to be found in plantation wood for that enormous project for the state of Tasmania.

Our Shadow Ministers, Martin Ferguson and Anthony Albanese, will now liaise with the workforce, the State Government and industry experts to develop a detailed sustainability plan.

We believe this is the best way of achieving our policy goals: a sustainable industry, value-added jobs for the future —the real security for the workforce – and the protection of Tasmania’s high-conservation value forests.

We want the local community to have the same confidence in the policy and its outcomes as we hold. There’s no point in saying that it was good policy, that we had it right, until the community shares our confidence about job security and the future of value adding then of course we will have difficulties. We will work hard, we will do the consultations, we will liaise so that the local community has the same confidence about the policy and job guarantee as we hold as Federal Politicians.

I say that this doesn’t have to be a divisive win-lose debate. Good public policy and good processes can reconcile goals that may have seemed irreconcilable in the past. It is all about the quality of public policy and the processes and understanding of it.

That’s what I know the Tasmania Together was all about. I believe in that approach and I want to carry it forward in cooperation with the Tasmanian Branch of the Party over the next three years.

So now let me conclude, let me give you this final message, that I believe is so fundamentally important. We can win in the 2007 election. We can win the next Federal poll for the Labor Party.

We know that the modern electorate is volatile, people are less rusted on. We saw that here in the Election Campaign. We know that we have got a Government that has made huge promises, huge spending commitments, that they are already backing away from. A Government that has lifted enormous expectations that there will be no interest rate rises in the future, yet they have got the fiscal policies that make that rise more likely. We will hold this Government to account for its crazy spending spree, for its promises and huge expectation on the interest rate front, and the nature of their scare campaign.

We will hold them to account, but we will also be working hard to further develop our strengths, particularly in education, health and family policy. We will be working hard to rebuild our economic credentials, the program of reform and productivity that I outlined earlier.

So let us not give in to the myth making out of the poll. Let’s not give in to the Tory campaign in the media and among their politicians. The myth making trying to push us back on the things that we had right. Let’s work hard to win for Labor here in Tasmania and right around the country.

Many thanks.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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