Latham and Leadership

A few weeks ago, I worked my way through Bill Clinton’s “My Life”. I must confess, somewhat sheepishly, that I loved it. As far as I can tell, reviewers have been unanimous in their critique: a bore of a book for policy nerds only. But the truth is, while Clinton doesn’t write like Faulkner, there’s really not that much policy in the book at all. Instead, it’s a tour de force about politics. Clinton’s immense and precocious talent, well conveyed in this book, is in understanding how new ideas can be sold to ordinary voters. His was a career spent personalising public policy, making it relevant to peoples’ lives through anecdote and empathy. While Clinton was not, in the final analysis, a great president, he is probably the US’s greatest ever campaigner.

Mark Latham, a self-confessed “third way” politician, has no doubt studied Bill Clinton very carefully. Latham lacks both the natural warmth and prodigious intellect of Clinton. But Latham has, like Clinton, sought to turn his life into an Australian story, and his emphasis on soft policy, like reading to children, bears the hallmarks of Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. Latham is interested in connecting with the voters in Australia’s outlying urban suburbs, and he is thankfully poised to seriously threaten John Howard’s occupancy of Kirribilli House.

But Latham continues to undermine his electoral ambitions with his constant allusions to class warfare and his sneering reference to the Tories. This stuff goes down a treat at Labor Party fundraisers, and from the mouth of Paul Keating was frequently amusing. But it is a dangerous indulgence for a modern Labor Party leader. The Australian heartland does not consider itself working class, but rather solidly middle class, with a strong grounding in traditional Australian values. Mark Latham is a tremendous talent and has the possibility to be a great prime minister. But like Clinton, and like Tony Blair, Latham should distance himself from the language of class and speak optimistically about one Australia, with all its possibility and potential.

John Howard, with his agenda of social conservatism, has weakened the Liberal Party’s grip on the mantle of Australian liberalism. As discussed in the post below, Peter Costello is perhaps looking to reclaim it. But Mark Latham could do far worse than make a play for the legacy of Deakinite liberalism and wedge the Liberal Party as far-right reactionaries. This is what Clinton did so successfully in portraying himself as the heir to the progressive era of Wilson and Roosevelt, and what Blair has done in moulding himself in the image of Gladstone and Asquith.

[Posted by Macgregor Duncan]

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