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Henry Thornton - Politics: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Two grumpy old leaders Date 09/08/2005
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Executive Director of the IPA, John Roskam, likens bitter ex-Labor leader Mark Latham to ex-Liberal leader Dr. John Hewson- the man campaigning against the current government.
By John Roskam Email / Print

A punch-drunk entering the ring one last time is tragic. Almost as sad is the sight of former Liberal leader, John Hewson joining the board of GetUp!, a left-wing internet organisation launched last week that uses spam emails to campaign against the Coalition.

The objective of GetUp! is to hold the Howard Government "responsible" for its Senate majority which takes effect this week when parliament resumes after its winter recess. Presumably the irony of Hewson's stance is not lost on the man himself.

For one thing, John Howard's industrial relations policies are far less radical than what Hewson wanted to do during the 1993 election campaign. Under Fightback, awards would have been abolished, and automatic entitlements to unemployment benefits would have been eliminated after nine months.

At this stage it is unclear what part of the Coalition's agenda Hewson objects to. Even the full privatisation of Telstra is something he promised to do in his second year of office.

Hewson's position would be understandable had he joined a lobby group urging the federal Government to do more reform, not less. Alas, he now appears to be abandoning some of the good ideas he once believed in.

Hewson once wanted to align the top personal income tax rate with the company tax rate to simplify the tax system and make it fairer for those who can't afford the expensive tax avoidance schemes of the wealthy. Political porkbarrelling masquerading under the guise of industry assistance schemes would have been shut down.

Somehow it seems unlikely that GetUp! will campaign to have the Coalition adopt such policies.

If Hewson - or for that matter anyone else involved in GetUp! - were genuinely concerned about the accountability of governments that have unfettered parliamentary control they would have set up comparable organisations to monitor Labor governments in Victoria, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Funnily enough, that hasn't happened.

Were the Coalition to attempt to use its Senate numbers to gerrymander that chamber's voting system and so prevent its opponents from ever winning a majority the outcry would be heard all the way to the UN Human Rights Commission. Yet this is exactly what a Labor government has recently done to Victoria's upper house. How unfortunate that the vigour and intellectual capacity which Hewson once devoted to arguing for economic and social reform is now employed against his own party. Why this is so is a mystery.

When he became federal leader in 1990, the Liberals gave him almost total authority, in a way unparalleled since Menzies, to determine their direction and policies. After seven years in opposition he was trusted to take the party back into government with ambitious and bold policies. His loss to Paul Keating in 1993 (in terms of seats he took the Liberals backwards) was not due to a lack of support from his colleagues or his party. Hewson alone was responsible for his failure. Yet his attitude towards the party he led for four years is one of resentment, not gratitude.

The parallels between Hewson's experiences and those of another former federal leader are striking. Mark Latham, after all, was to be Labor's political messiah. Although in the end he was brought down by factional bickering, at least initially Latham had the ALP united behind him. Importantly, he had the backing of many prominent columnists in the media. The sympathetic coverage he gained was not entirely undeserved.

Latham's first speech as leader, flanked by his wife and children, signalled that he understood the ambitions of the Howard battlers, and that Labor would attempt to win back their support.

Latham had a reputation as a bold thinker who was not afraid to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. As a backbencher from 1998 to 2001, he had championed the equivalent of school vouchers and the end to indigenous welfare dependency. In 2001 he rejected a central tenet of social democrats all over the world when he proclaimed that social problems couldn't be solved simply by governments throwing ever larger amounts of taxpayers' money at them. He once said: "Whether we like it or not, the days of tax-and-spend policies have ended."

In 1993 the prime ministership was John Hewson's to lose, while admittedly at the federal election 11 years later Latham had a more difficult task. Still, he comprehensively blew it.

The financial irresponsibility of Medicare Gold was a repudiation of everything Latham had ever stood for, while his non-government schools funding policy was sheer folly. Aspirational voters aren't much interested in either class warfare or class envy.

The question inevitably arose of whether Latham ever really believed in any of the things he had spent years talking about before he became leader. His commitment to "bring home the troops before Christmas" was political stupidity.

Latham might complain about Labor premiers being "A-grade arseholes" but they weren't responsible for his loss of the 2004 election. It appears that in his forthcoming memoirs Latham will blame his failure on everyone in the Labor Party but himself.

It is difficult to imagine any of our three most recent prime ministers acting in the way either Hewson or Latham have. Perhaps that's why Bob Hawke, Keating and Howard got to be PM, while Hewson and Latham didn't.

Hawke, as the nation's longest-serving Labor leader, would have had every right to turn on his colleagues after he was unceremoniously dumped by them - but he didn't. Keating had his chance and is at least philosophical about the experience.

Of those three prime ministers Howard, until he became prime minister, was perhaps the one treated worst by his own side of politics. But to do a Latham, or a Hewson, or (sadly) a Malcolm Fraser would never have entered his mind.

There is one further thing that Hewson and Latham have in common. They each suffered from a fundamental misconception about the Australian people.

Both attempted to impose their own radical prescriptions on the electorate, and both were comprehensively rejected. They thought they could remake the nation in their own image and they were wrong. Governments don't change people - people change governments.

GetUp! suffers from the same misapprehension. The political spam group proclaims that "after nearly a decade of conservative government, our country has changed."

Of course the country has changed, but that is not merely of Howard's doing.

The Coalition, for instance, might like to take credit for the fact that there are now in Australia more workers who are self-employed than are union members, but this is an outcome of the economic and social transformation that has been going on for decades.

Likewise, in the international context, despite what the founders of GetUp! might think Australia's foreign policy which is firmly behind the US war on terror could only have been sustained with broad community support.

Terrorists, remember, have changed the world, not George Bush.

Our most successful political leaders have understood that the Australian people are cautious in temperament, and conservative by nature. This is not to say that the community will never support change, but it first must be convinced of the benefits of change.

Next time Hewson or Latham contemplate the tragedies that are their political careers, they might ponder these truths.

John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne. This article was first published in The Australian on the Monday 8 August 2005. Link here

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