gawd - gloves off now

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    Michael Costello: Not the time for excuses

    October 15, 2004

    OPPOSITION leader is famously one of the toughest jobs there is. Bob Carr and John Howard wax lyrical about what a remorseless, unforgiving job it is. Nor do most Opposition leaders get the consolation of making it to the top. In the past 50 years, only four have become prime minister out of the 14 who tried.

    The worst moment for Opposition leaders is when they lose. Not only is there the pain of defeat; there is also the usual chorus of critics all blessed with 20-20 hindsight. They get the hard shoes on and sink the slipper into the poor tormented soul who has tried their heart out. You'd think people would have the decency to keep their mouths shut and let the post-mortem be conducted quietly and in private.

    Those who have been closely associated with a losing campaign surely have a particular reason to say nothing. Yes, I am referring to me. I was Kim Beazley's chief-of-staff in the losing campaign in 2001 and I think every day of the mistakes I made in the job and how I share responsibility for leaving the country in Howard's hands.

    So why don't I heed my own advice and remain silent?

    Because there's something much worse than indulging in hindsight. It is called kidding yourself, refusing to face up to reality, finding all sorts of belated rationalisations, averting your eyes from a train wreck because it is too gruesome to contemplate. It began a few days before last Saturday's federal election and swamped the media on the Sunday after the poll Ð a blizzard of excuses and phony explanations.

    Any organisation that favours fiction over fact is doomed. Moreover, the Australian Labor Party is not a private club but a political party seeking public office to implement public policy. The idea that any analysis of the election loss should be confined to the internal counsels of the party is illogical.

    Let's begin with some of the post-election rationalisations. First, Mark Latham did not have sufficient time in 10 months to win the confidence of voters. Why then did he put his hand up for the job in the first place? Steve Bracks had far less time than 10 months and he knocked off the seemingly impregnable Jeff Kennett. Latham got overwhelming media attention from a broadly well-disposed and forgiving media, plus an extended six-week campaign with intense coverage. No, this won't wash.

    Second, the economy was said to be so good it was impossible to beat Howard. The economy was good in 1996 and Howard wrecked Labor. Moreover, the economy was good in 2001 and despite the fact that in addition Beazley and Labor faced the problems of the Tampa asylum-seeker stand-off, the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US and Australia going to war in Afghanistan, it still did 2 per cent better than this time. So it cannot just be the economy.

    Third, there is the so-called interest-rate scare campaign. What? This was the most telegraphed punch of all time. Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello have run interest rates against Labor since 1996, and it was obvious that this was going to be their main attack this time. Sure, they exaggerated their case, but it was a predictable issue.

    Fourth, Labor allegedly won the campaign. True, it is possible to win a campaign and still lose votes at an election. It depends on the circumstances in which you started. In 2001, despite the overwhelming security environment, Beazley started at 43 per cent (two-party preferred) and improved six percentage points to 49 per cent (two-party preferred). Latham's Labor started at 52 per cent and went back to 47 per cent. That's not winning a campaign.

    Moreover, Latham must accept responsibility for a series of policy and strategic decisions that cost dearly. Withdrawing from Iraq by Christmas; the extraordinary forest policy that destroyed Labor's last week of the campaign; Medicare Gold, the health portfolio equivalent of free beer for all the workers, thus playing into Howard's economic irresponsibility theme; the close embrace of Bob Brown and the Australian Greens in a way that Latham before he became leader would rightly have pointed out was guaranteed to alienate huge numbers of traditional Labor voters, and despite the fact that Labor was always going to win Green preferences.

    Then there was his decision to campaign on values Ð for example reading to children, disposal of plastic bags, mentoring boys Ð and to say virtually nothing about key economic issues. The bizarre thing is that in Latham's pre-leadership writings, there is a kernel of very strong, rigorous economic thinking related to competitiveness, trade, efficiency and productivity. Where did this disappear?

    Latham will lead the party into the next election. Can he win? Labor will have to build its credibility on economics and security as a pre-condition. The No.1 question, however, is whether Latham is able to acknowledge to himself that he personally was responsible for many of the mistakes that cost Labor this election and handed Howard control ofthe Senate.

    If so, he could build on the qualities he showed in comprehensively beating Howard in the debate and rattling Howard in the middle weeks to become a much more focused, effective leader.

    If he does this, Labor has a chance. If he does not, if he refuses to recognise his responsibility, then all the economic and security policy development in the world will not make any difference.

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