Mark Latham enjoyed two key points of advantage over Prime Minister John Howard when he wrested the leadership of the Labor Party from Kim Beazley eight months ago.
Against a Prime Minister who was fast approaching retirement age, but who clearly had no intentions of actually taking that step, Latham burst on to the scene as a youthful leader in his early 40s and the father of two pre-school age boys.
He also appeared to be a politician who was bold and different and who presented a refreshing contrast to the run-of-the-mill modern politician who avoids saying anything controversial or against the party line. And, almost uniquely for a modern-day Labor man, Latham came from a family with a genuine working class background.
Before he was elected leader, Latham was prepared to speak his mind – even giving US President George Bush a serve in the bluntest western Sydney language.
Certainly he was brash and occasionally crass, but history shows this has never been a disqualification for high office, and there was a certain amount of humbug when commentators expressed outrage about his colourful language.
But as the months pass both those advantages – which can be summed up by the terms youth and novelty – are starting to work against him.
The Coalition is honing in on Latham’s inexperience and apparent failures in the one and only period of responsibility he had in office – as Mayor of Sydney’s Liverpool Council.
And the all-important novelty factor is quickly starting to fade as Latham finds it impossible to keep up the momentum of different and eye-catching political ideas.
But, bit by bit, Latham’s actions have been contradicting his words and professed political philosophy.
For example he professed to believe in grassroots democracy, but at the first opportunity he rode roughshod over the Labor Party branches to install radical environmentalist, Peter Garrett, in a safe right wing Labor seat.
However, Labor’s capitulation on the United States Free Trade deal is the clearest example to date to show that Latham’s version of new politics was more about show than substance.
Latham repeatedly denounced the deal when it was first announced, raising expectations that Labor might make a stand against an agreement which was clearly harmful to Australian manufacturing and farmers, and which put at risk the country’s unique pharmaceutical scheme.
But, despite a mountain of evidence that it was not worth signing, the Labor leader used the cover of a Senate Committee to agree to the proposal with a couple of minor legislative caveats.
Latham will not actually win a vote on the free-trade deal, whereas he would have won many thousands from a cross-section of the country had he opposed it.
It was a snub to the party’s union roots and proof, if any were needed, that Latham’s economics, despite the thought bubbles of radical alternatives in his various books, are Treasury mainstream.
Significantly, Latham declared that fundamentally he was a “free trader” after all.
In other words, Latham might profess to be a nationalist, but when the chips are down he will ultimately always back his economic rationalist/free trade instincts.
The government mantra that Latham Labor should be judged on what it does rather than what it says is being borne out by each decision Labor makes.