Why opportunity knocks for Biff Latham and Big Red
The Coalition’s lurch to the Left is a gift for some
We have Big Clive jamming the airwaves, Big Red in the Senate and now Biff wants to get back in on the act. The freak show that is Australian minor-party politics attracts a lot of derision — especially from those smarting at Mark “Biff” Latham’s obligatory personal attacks — but aside from the jokes there must be something serious at play.
With Latham joining Pauline Hanson, all bets must be off; the Adidas slogan Impossible is Nothing has been applied to our national politics. No longer could we feign surprise if Penny Wong joined the Australian Conservatives, Eric Abetz defected to the Greens or Tony Abbott replaced Bandana Man as chairman of the Australian Republican Movement. Have the fringe-dwellers become mainstream? Is the electorate dumbing itself down or are voters deliberately vandalising a defunct system? As I suggested on the eve of the Wentworth by-election, protest votes against dysfunction are delivering even more chaos. It is, at once, self-fulfilling and self-defeating.
The real story of this year’s byelections and the true narrative of the past two decades has been the decline of the major parties.
While the Greens have bubbled along on the Left, dragging down Labor’s primary vote but replenishing it through preferences, the Democrats rose and fell as centrists. The recent force, with a spike in the late 1990s and a resurgence in the past three years, has been One Nation. Hanson’s party, with right-of-centre copycats such as Palmer United Party and Australian Conservatives, has siphoned primary votes from the Coalition but sprayed preferences, hurting its two-party-preferred performance.
From the 50s until the 80s, major parties were winning about 90 per cent of House of Representatives primary votes. Since the late 80s the trendline shows a steady decline with a commensurate drift to the minor parties.
A 90-10 split has now dwindled to 77-23. For most of the postwar era one in every 10 votes went to a minor party; now it is almost one in four.
The problem must be with the major parties. Hanson and other interlopers such as Clive Palmer, Nick Xenophon and Bob Katter are not so irresistible they can change the gravity of national affairs. It is more likely they have opportunistically filled a vacuum created by major parties.
Clearly the Coalition has lost its hold on a solid cohort of rightof-centre voters. The salient question is whether these voters are renegade hardliners who have turned their backs on the mainstream or conservative voters who have been abandoned by a Coalition drifting to the Left. The arrival of Latham in One Nation’s camp provides a clue. It suggests a fringe party is becoming more mainstream, looking to bite further into major party stocks.
The Coalition must end the fracturing on the Right of politics and reclaim voters it has spurned. This is its only route to success; it is largely why Malcolm Turnbull was jettisoned. There are some signs that Scott Morrison understands.
Recognising this reality is not to praise Hanson or Latham. The intolerant and unintelligent views of the One Nation founder, in my view, are a blight on our polity. But she taps into concerns often ignored by others.
Whether it is Muslim migration, population pressures, foreign investment, overseas aid or even her starting point of indigenous support, you don’t have to endorse Hanson’s simplistic, selfish and flint-hearted remedies to concede government management of these issues is subpar.
The orthodox response of the major parties has been to denounce the remedies and deny the grievances when they should ac- knowledge the grievances and show they can manage these difficult areas with certitude.
On policy, Latham is far less egregious than Hanson — often showing great insight — but his personal vitriol and propensity for character conniptions have made him a fringe-dweller. If we get a mix of his nastiness and One Nation’s ignorance and intolerance we could end up with the most odious force our politics has seen. But if we get a sedated version of Latham, mollifying One Nation gripes with acceptable policies, the outcome could be altogether more compelling.
In 2004 Michael Duffy presci- ently profiled two politicians in one book: by choosing Latham and Abbott he acknowledged not only that both were talented and ambitious but, crucially, that they understood the middle ground of national politics.
Abbott, as we know, made it to the prime ministership while Latham contested it once before imploding.
Duffy’s perceptiveness is worth recounting now for two reasons: it reminds us what a significant figure Latham has been; and it reminds us that Latham and Abbott were steadfastly set in the mainstream a decade and a half ago. Their perspectives have changed little but both are now portrayed as hardliners. This suggests it is the media/political class that has moved away from the mainstream.
Many will mock and admonish Latham and Hanson, which amplifies their outsider status, strengthens their brand and increases their appeal. Hanson operates in a visceral way, connecting to the annoyed and begrudged about a nation that is not as good as they think it should be. Latham is far more cerebral and comprehends the essence of aspirational Australia — just like Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Peter Costello. His personality faults robbed the ALP of a considerable amount and, if he is serious, he could help make One Nation a more potent force.
In his Townsville forum this week with Sky News’ Paul Murray Live, Morrison noted that the values of the Liberal Party actually match those of mainstream Australia. This is obvious but comes as a revelation to many. The fact Morrison grasps it is encouraging.
The crucial centre ground in Australian politics is not some midpoint between Sarah HansonYoung and Fraser Anning. The mainstream cohort leans to the Right; for all our compulsory superannuation, generous welfare and Medicare safety net, we are an aspirational and self-reliant nation. The pitch for the crucial middle ground in politics actually needs to be targeted to the Centre-Right — to individuals and families who want to get ahead.
Howard knew this and when Labor governments have succeeded federally it has not been because the electorate has embraced the Left; it has been because the ALP has embraced the right-ofcentre mainstream — think Hawke, think Keating and think of what Kevin Rudd promised.
A series of sucker punches during the past decade have drawn the Coalition to the Left — lumbering themselves with the Gonski funding, National Broadband Network, National Disability Insurance Scheme, renewable energy target and, in Turnbull’s dying days, national energy guarantee. The minor parties on the Right have emerged primarily because the Coalition has drifted down this big-government, globalist and interventionist path.
One Nation’s reanimation can be traced to the moment Abbott was overthrown in September 2015. Its stocks have risen as the Coalition has drifted Left, culminating in the crazy-brave plan for a bipartisan consensus on climate and energy policy, precisely the path that cost Turnbull the Liberal leadership first time. On the ABC this week the former prime minister and Q&A host Tony Jones kept up the pretence of failing to understand why Turnbull was tossed. When the Coalition was elected on a platform to axe the carbon tax yet in government tried to deliver a climate policy Labor and the Greens could abide, there is not much room for doubt.
The proportional representation of our Senate and state upper houses creates a bias in favour of niche players. Our founding fathers would turn in their graves at how their deft designs for democratic representation have created menageries for roo poo throwers, tabloid TV hosts, egomaniacs and fundamentalists of various kinds.
But if major parties could be consistent on policy and stable in leadership they would go a long way towards making the system work. At the Sky News forum Morrison warned people that if they voted for minor parties they could never be certain what they would get. That would be a compelling pitch except that in the past decade people who supported Labor or the Coalition have ended up with leaders and policies different to what they were promised. This must change, or parliament will be full of Big Reds and Biffs.
If we get a mix of Latham’s nastiness and One Nation’s ignorance and intolerance we could end up with the most odious force our politics have ever seen
Mark Latham and Pauline Hanson in Sydney this week