You are here

Mark Latham's political gift to John Howard

"The Latham Diaries" published in 2005 reveal how figures within the Labor Party and the trade union movement undermined the election prospects of Federal Labor Party in recent years and have prolonged the misrule of the Howard Government. State Labor Premiers, the Forestry division of the Construction Forestry and Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), in league with the woodchippers who are destroying Tasmania's old-growth forests, and even members of the Federal Labor caucus acted as if they found the prospect of Howard ruling after 2004 elections preferable to the prospect of a Latham-led government.

Now in 2007, many who had admired and supported Latham in the past will be dismayed to have read "Latham: Beware the Polls and The Swinging Voter" the second of two articles for the Australian Financial Review published on Saturday 17 November. Just as he had shown that people within the Labor Party had acted to undermine Federal Labor when he was its leader in 2004, Latham now appears, himself, to be acting to undermine Federal Labor's chances in 2007.

Furthermore, if as he says in his article, that the outcome of the Federal election is still undecided, then the anti-Labor views propagated in that article may yet make the necessary difference that would deliver Howard a fifth term in office.

The article contains a surprisingly one-sided blinkered pronouncements against the union movement's "Rights to Work" campaign against the Howard Government's "Work Choices" legislation, which Latham implies is the one factor which would prematurely end the rule of a Government which is capably managing the national economy. As Latham put it:

Throughout this year most commentators have been surprised by the Howard Government's poor showing in the polls. Conventional wisdom says a government presiding over a strong economy, with no reputation for corruption (my emphasis) should be safely re-elected.

I would have thought that many others would perhaps have expressed even greater surprise that a Government such as Howard's could enjoy even that much support, given its record.

Evidently, the rorting of the regional partnerships grant scheme against Latham's own bid to become Prime Minister in 2004, the AWB bribery scandal in which $296 million (all dollar figures given are in AU$ unless otherwise stated) was paid to the regime of Saddam Hussein and the spending of an unprecedented $1 billion on saturation-level Government self-promotional advertising since the 2004 elections, the abuse of the Government's absolute Senate majority do not technically amount to 'corruption' so should not concern Australian electors.

If not for the trade union movement's campaign against "Work Choices" which Latham labels a 'scare campaign', the Howard Government in which Latham finds surprisingly little fault would easily win on 24 November:

The breakthrough has been the labour movement's capacity to run a long-term scare campaign on an issue affecting the hip pocket nerve - Work Choices. This has been the most expensive and sustained television advertising campaign in Australian political history. Since 2005 the trade unions have raised large amounts of money, selling off assets and raiding their slush funds, in one last push to get rid of the coalition and return to the patronage of a Labor government, and the campaign has worked, creating fear and misunderstanding (my emphasis) in the community about the industrial relations laws and hostility to the Howard Government

It's notable the language Latham uses. He now apparently disputes the right of unions to organise effectively and to engage in politics for the benefit of their memberships. Union funds have become 'slush funds'. The union movement's aspiration to bring about the election of a government more sympathetic to its wellbeing than the current government is denigrated as seeking 'patronage' as if somehow the relationship between the Howard Government and the big business interests that it serves is not 'patronage'. This paragraph sadly demonstrates how the line between legitimately criticising the anti-democratic practices of some trade unions as he did in "The Latham Diaries" and simply being opposed to unions outright is an easy one to cross.

If it is, in fact, true that unions have been forced, by the introduction of "Work Choices" legislation for which this government had no mandate and the subsequent lavish spending of taxpayers' funds on blatantly misleading partisan political advertising, to sell of their own assets in order to be able to counter the government misinformation, then a massive injustice has been perpetrated against many unions and their memberships, and they should be entitled to seek reparations from the Liberal Party, but this obvious point appears to have been lost on Mark Latham.

Latham continues:

For two years, the union ads have stirred emotions and hip pocket nerves, with powerful images of single mothers forced to work at weekends, young people coerced into signing contracts and middle-aged couples sacked for no reason after years of loyal service.

Here, Latham seems to be implying, without actually stating it explicitly, that the claims of the "Rights at Work" campaign are either false or a beat-up. He makes no acknowledgment of the fact that the claims have been borne out by numerous independent academic studies, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as well as copious anecdotal evidence. He does not acknowledge that in "John Winston Howard: The Biography" by Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen it has been revealed that Howard knew perfectly well, contrary to undertakings he made and contrary to the claims of the initial saturation level $55 million "Work Choices" advertising campaign, that workers would be worse off as a result of his industrial relations legislation.

Having thus established that "Work Choices" as it now stands is of no great concern to Australian workers, Latham goes on to dismiss any suggestion that a re-elected Howard Government might take "Work Choices" further:

During the campaign, Labor's advertisement have added a new dimension of fear, that a re-elected Howard/Costello government would take Work Choices further.

Latham claims:

No-one on the Labor side honestly believes that the coalition would take Work Choices further, just as in 2004, no-one in the coalition believed that would keep interests rates down.

How Labor Party insiders can know this and how Latham can know that they know this is not explained.

The Australian public were never told by John Howard of "Work Choices" during the 2004 election campaign. Peter Costello, for his part, has said that the removal of protection against unfair dismissal should be extended to all employees and not just restricted to those working for companies employing less than 100 employees. Finance Minister Nick Minchin told a meeting to the HR Nicholls Society on 8 March 2006, "we do need to seek a mandate from the Australian people at the next election for another wave of industrial relations reform". Industrial Relations Minister Joe Hockey told ABC Radio's AM program on 18 October that the role of unions in Australian society is "essentially over"

As some employers are already loudly complaining of the complexity of the "fairness test" amendments to the "Work Choices" laws. Whatever might be said before the election, we can expect that once Howard is returned to office the campaign to remove or else water down the "fairness test" will be intensified.

For Latham to expect Australian workers to trust a re-elected Howard Government not to further reduce the rights of workers given all this and given its past record of deceit, lies, 'core' and 'non-core' promises and contrived excuses to dishonour pledges such as the "Beazley black hole", on the basis of his supposed insider information, not from the Government, but from the Labor Party is an extreme test of the credulity of the electorate.

Latham's article contain within it some pertinent observations about the health of Australian democracy. He makes a good case for making voting voluntary as far too much effort seems to be expended by both a major parties in order to win the support of apathetic people, whilst those who really care have relatively little impact. If voting were not compulsory this could change.

However, Mark Latham appears to have completely missed a far more basic question in regard to the operation of democracy.

We have in power a Government which has taken the practice of government to levels which would have previously been unimaginable. This includes, notwithstanding Latham's own attempt to belittle its impact, the introduction of the "Work Choices"legislation which had not even been put to the Australian public in the previous election which has changed the very fabric of our society. Had Howard been forthright about his plans in 2004, he would not be Prime Minister today. Having announced in 2005 his intention to introduce legislation, which he knew perfectly well would harm at least hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians Howard used taxpayers' money to indoctrinate the public into acceptance of this legislation. The initial campaign had a massive budget of $55-million and inflicted a an unprecedented degree of saturation level advertising on the public. The claims made in the campaign that various workers' entitlements were "protected by law" were later shown to have been false, when the Government subsequently, under the threat of losing office made the "fairness test" amendments to the legislation. A further saturation-level advertising blitz, ostensibly to 'inform' Australian workers of rights supposedly safeguarded by the "fairness test" that they all had enjoyed back in October 2004 and which most had assumed were not at risk when Howard was re-elected, was then launched. Even at that the second advertising campaign still misled, because, amongst other things it neglected to point out that if a worker does not have protection against unfair dismissal, then no other right is worth anything anyway. If a worker does not agree that a proposed AWA is fair what is to stop his/her employer from sacking him/her one month down the track for any concocted reason, anyway?

The all up cost of the Work Choices propaganda stands at over $120 million of taxpayers' dollars. Total taxpayer dollars spent since Howard was re-elected in 2004 stands at $1 billion.

Whilst being prepared to spend copious amount of taxpayer dollars in order to 'inform' the public about "Work Choices" John Howard has refused to publicly debate the legislation, firstly with Beazley and then with Rudd. Only finally, during the course of the election campaign in the limited debate of 21 October did Howard openly confront Rudd and lost the debate. Had he agreed to when he first announced the laws, their harmful effects would have been far too obvious for anyone to deny and the unions would have been spared the necessity for much of the expense entailed in their rights in order to win the public.

Somehow, none of this has any bearing on the health of Australian democracy in Latham's eyes. The article concludes:

Next Saturday, people will be contemplating a change of government when what Australia when when what Australia needs is a change to its democracy

What Latham fails to point out is that if the Australian people fail on 24 November to take advantage of the opportunity before them to throw from office the worst Government by far that this country has had since federation, then a very dangerous precedent will have been set.

If the amount of time energy and money spent by opposition parties, trade unions and grass roots political movements cannot this time bring about the defeat of such a government, then when can they ever hope to succeed?

If Howard gets back in, there will be almost no limit to how much harm it will be capable of inflicting upon the public interest from now on, and their will be almost no limit as to how much an incumbent government can abuse its position of incumbency in order or cling to power.

In covering up this basic reality, Latham is, himself, undermining the very democracy he claims he wants to see rejuvenated.

Comments

Great article!
I used to wish that the major newspapers would devote more time to comments from the public, but the letters to the editor word-quotas just kept getting smaller. So it's great to read some comments about the commentators!

I read Latham's Diaries and enjoyed some of his remarks about Labor hypocrisy and ego-mania.
I couldn't find any sign however that Latham had any more ideas than the ALP or the Libs. It was disappointing to see how he bought, lock stock and barrel, growth economics mumbo-jumbo.

Now it seems he has completely lost touch with reality on industrial relations. But the man never had any idea of the depth of our material and energy problems. This is the case with just about all the Labor politicians; it's as if they have never been out of the city and have always worked in offices. And the Libs may travel more, but they don't care about anyone.

It is shocking that this man who seems to think of himself as some kind of working class hero would now assert that the Libs are not going to do anything worse.

I am personally sure that they are. But is Labor going to do any better?

Can't leave Howard in though; I agree with that.

These are scary times.