Why op­por­tu­nity knocks for Biff Latham and Big Red

The Coali­tion’s lurch to the Left is a gift for some

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - CHRIS KENNY

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

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