Thoughts on Latham

Ashley recently posted some thoughts on Mark Latham. I’ll ‘fess up – I was the one who asked for his opinion 😉

In his post Ashley points to Crikey.com’s dummies guide to Mark Latham. Yes – the article does spend a little too much time dissecting Latham’s sometimes overbearing language, I have to see I broadly agree with the substantitive criticisms of Latham’s writing. Apart from the media releases (available at the ALP website or via OzPolFeeds) , I have read a couple of essays written circa 2000, and his latest book, From The Suburbs.

I have also read Lindsay Tanner’s Crowded Lives and about half of Tanner’s earlier effort Open Australia. I mention this because it seems that Latham and Tanner have very similar views, and both seem very heavily grounded in the UK experience, and the New Labour version of the the Third Way. (BTW, this post is by no way a definitive piece – I’m sure I’ll think of other stuff over time.)

It’s been a few months since I read the book, but the lasting impression of it is much the same as Crikey’s conclusion – confused. Much of Latham’s language smacks of the Howard administration’s rhetoric about dole bludgers and slackers. There is fleeting reference to increasing responsibility of corporations, but this seems mostly like lip service with no concrete proposals put forward.

The biggest issue I see with Latham’s vision is his view that many essential services should be provided by the volunteer and community sector. This, throughout the book, troubled me – there was no mention of whether support for the sector meant “funding” or something else entirely. It seemed to be more of an absolution of government responsibility in regards to service provision, believing that magically the volunteer and community sector will take over this burden and do it more efficiently and effectively. I see some pretty big problems with this.

If volunteer and community organisations are in fact funded by the government, how is this different to the government actually providing the services with community involvement and delivery? How will organisations be chosen for support, and how will services be co-ordinated? If the government doesn’t intend to fund these organisations, how does it see these organisations being able to provide these services – volunteer labour? Donations?

This way a Labor government runs a very real risk of advancing the separation of haves and have nots than Howard has managed to achieve in a decade. Perhaps this is the plan, but I honestly don’t think so. I say this because Latham seems to want to remove the state from providing these services, and if the wealthy can pay for better services while the rest of the community is reliant on volunteer and community run organisations – possibly without adequate support. The “tax” burden (in the form of donations of money and time rather than money to the government) is shifted further to the poor – how many wealthy people are going to contribute to community or volunteer organisations when their money would be better served going into more professional organisations servicing the wealthy community. I see this model failing in much the same way as private health care is handled currently.

When it comes to education, Latham seems firmly in the camp that education is only useful if it is vocational – much as the Crikey critique points out. It seems that the “mutual obligation” extends to the learner becoming a productive member of the economy. As an artist and as a student of political science I find that proposition offensive. I wonder if Latham sees politicians as contributing to the economy? I suppose that passing pro-business legislation and stripping the rights of citizens in favour of economic gain and free markets would be considered as productive. Unfortunately that’s not what governments are supposed to do.

All that said – IMO Latham is streets ahead of Howard. There is a definite focus on health and education. The Labor refugee policy stinks – but even that is a damn sight better than what we have now. Labor is pushing the same tax cuts for the wealthy as the Liberals, but they also propose benefits across the board, not just the wealthy. Labor generally seems more realistic in terms of balanced foreign policy – re-engaging with our Asian neighbours.

So do I think Latham will be a great Prime Minister? Probably not. In any other election I would not vote for Latham – but this is no ordinary election. (As an aside, I don’t know of one party who I would like to vote for in the next election.) For once it is not a case of Labor is just like Liberal, but the Libs have swung sooooo far to the right that the concessions given by Labor will be a breath of fresh air. But they will have to swing further to the center in the next four years if we, as the people of Australia, are to be better off.

After the Howard government’s abominable record on asylum seekers, the lies that we have been told, without retraction or apology, on the Tampa situation, the SIEV-X tragedy, the reasons for going to war on Iraq, the failure to acknowledge and their consistnent revokation of Aboriginal land rights, on the US-FTA (FTR – I think Labor would stink just as much when it comes to FTAs), attacks on education (both rhetorical and legislative), on Medicare and the PBS, on terrorism – the list just goes on and on and on, we cannot afford as a nation to continue under this regime.