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Maintain enthusiasm, maintain the rage

Maintain your rage and enthusiasm through the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.

- Edward Gough Whitlam, 11 November 1975

I probably haven't been as deflated about a federal election result since Gough was kicked out of office and then beaten in a landslide 29 years ago. I was too young to vote then. I made my federal election debut in 1977 and the result wasn't much closer. 1980 was a lost cause summed up in two words, "Bill" and "Hayden". 1983 was a fantastic occasion, Bob Hawke taking the Labor Party to victory and Malcolm Fraser losing control of his lower lip during his concession speech. 1984, 1987, 1990 were victories, close, but still won by Hawke. 1993 looked doomed to be the end of the Labor reign, until John Hewson tried to explain GST to Mike Willesee:

WILLESEE: If I buy a birthday cake from a cake shop and there’s GST in place do I pay more or less?
HEWSON: To give you an accurate answer I need to know exactly what type of cake to give you a detailed answer, if it’s just a cake…

1996 it really was over. At least I had the India v Pakistan world cup quarter-final to drown my sorrows in that night. 1998, 2001... and now 2004. Some Labor pessimists are thinking towards not 2007, but 2010.

The Australian electorate as a whole doesn't care about foreign policy or refugees and accept with a degree of cynicism that "politicians lie". They get bluffed over the economy, accepting that things are good simply because the dictionary definition of "recession" hasn't come into play since 1990. Does that really mean things are better off for all Australians?

We're not the nation of racist anglophiles that we were, say, forty years ago. We're a better people than we used to be. The legacy of the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating governments collectively has been to make this country more tolerant and embrace the diversity of its people. Howard's vision, consciously or unconsciously, has been to try and drag us back to the olden days of the 1950s or 1960s. That is, when Bob Menzies was Prime Minister. He reacted to Pauline Hanson by making her redundant. Why does Australia keep voting for him?

It comes down, in my view, to the lack of a trustworthy alternative. JWH played the election on the massive of "trust", and "trust" was the decisive issue. The lack of trust in Howard's ability to be honest seemed less important than the lack of trust in Mark Latham's experience and demeanour.

To be fair, it would have been a miraculous task for someone to take on the opposition leadership and turn around a healthy government majority in a general election after just nine months. Latham is the most audacious leader of any major party in this country that I have seen since Whitlam retired - possibly with the exception of Jeff Kennett in Victoria. His thought processes can be erratic at times, but he is a thinker, and as a student of EG Whitlam, a follower of The Great Man's maxim of "crash through or crash".

Mark Latham crashed on Saturday. He deserves a trip to the panel-beaters and then back on the road again till 2007.

Much has been said of the Tasmanian logging, the Medicare Gold, the laughable "one free day a week of child care", but the Labor camp did made three serious tactical mistakes during this campaign.

One was to focus too much on Latham the individual and not enough on the Labor team. The ALP front bench possesses a number of talented people: Rudd, Gillard, Swan, Smith, McMullen, Albanese, Tanner, Roxon, Faulkner and so on. Compare that team to Downer, Ruddock, Vanstone, Nelson, Patterson, Draper... and, of course, Abbott and Costello.

It must be said, though, that the scare campaign that Howard would retire and hand over to Costello mid-term was another mistake. It's not saying a great deal, but Costello would undoubtedly make a better Prime Minister than John Howard. (I have a pair of old worn slippers on the floor that would make a better Prime Minister than John Howard, but hey.) Peter Costello would be a better choice than any one of Tony Abbott, Brendon Nelson, Andrew Robb or Malcolm Turnbull.

No, telling people that Howard will give way to Costello before the next election is an argument to vote for the Liberal Party, not against it.

Mistake number three? Simon Crean, Shadow Treasurer. Crean's comparison of Howard to a drunken sailor is the only decent thing he did in the entire election campaign, and indeed before that. Ever notice how Bob McMullen is the one doing all the talking on economic policy? If only you had some charisma, Bob. The only place I would trust Crean in a shadow cabinet would be on his old stamping ground of industrial relations.

Crean's performance as Opposition Leader up till December 2003 also deserves mention. The ALP needed to start making ground from the beginning of 2002, not in the middle of 2004. They needed to bore it up the government over Children Overboard, over private education funding, over its failings in economic management (consider just how bad a communications minister Richard Alston really was). They needed to show courageous and intelligent opposition to the war in Iraq, instead of falling into the "shut up and support the troops" trap. When Latham took over the stable, the horse had already bolted.

I'll make a few predictions for now about changes in the Labor caucus. Mark Latham will remain leader, Julia Gillard will become deputy (although she has apparently ruled it out today), Jenny Macklin will stay in education but not as deputy leader, Kevin Rudd will remain shadow foreign minister whether he likes it or not (the IQ chasm separating him and Alexander Downer is frightening), and Lindsay Tanner will become shadow treasurer.

And in the wishful thinking category, Carmen Lawrence returns to the front bench, and Jennie George does something.

It will be a couple of weeks before we know the final composition of the Senate. Whatever the result, it won't take effect till 1 July 2005. Before then, the current Senate (35 coalition, 28 ALP, 7 Democrat, 2 Greens, 1 One Nation, 1 Australian Progressive Alliance, and 2 independents) needs to be hostile, aggressive, diligent, and inquisitive. Let's get SIEV X back on the agenda. Let's start talking criminal libel over Children Overboard. It's just as well we don't have impeachment in our constitution.

This is my last post under the "Election 04" heading. Once the senate, the cabinet and the Labor frontbench are sorted out, I'll kick off "The 4th Term". I'll add some links to any interesting post-election analysis into the comments, and I invite anyone reading this to have their say in the comments section as well. And though I'll keep thinking about what the hell was going on in New Lambton Heights, I won't bore you with my conclusions.

Maintain your rage, maintain your enthusiasm. Australia is a great place to live. Still.