Either out of desperation or resignation, the Labor Party has finally fallen in behind Mark Latham, with its National Conference uniting more firmly behind its new leader than at any time since the early days of Paul Keating, more than a decade ago.
Latham has defied his critics, particularly those in the Liberal Party who believed he was easy pickings, and the new-look national conference has rubber-stamped the most important of his key policies.
While making some concessions on tax cuts for the wealthy and blunting some harsh economic “reform” measures in a bid to appease the unions, Latham was able to secure solid party backing going into the election year.
Ironically, the man he displaced, Simon Crean, played a significant role in these behind-the-scenes negotiations, working to placate the various strident groups in the party to win these concessions.
The Liberal Party has also in part helped Mr Latham’s easy entré into the leadership through a serious underestimation of his political skills.
They believed Latham to be either mad or accident prone, or possibly both, and that he would shoot himself in the foot within a month of his leadership.
In fact, Mr Latham is an intelligent and capable politician who has been carefully trained and cultivated by the Labor Party since he was a boy. His so-called madness and eratic policy ideas is more likely to have been a fairly calculated way of differentiating himself from his peers – fast-tracking his way to the top of the party.
Latham was always going to lead the Labor Party. It was just a matter of when. The crippled Crean leadership and the Beazley paralysis brought forward that outcome by a couple of terms. The Liberals also made a serious tactical error when Latham was first appointed.
Before the December leadership bout they repeatedly said that the personality of the leadership of the Labor Party (either Crean or Beazley) was irrelevant, and that it was only the party’s failed policies which mattered.
But after the ballot and Latham’s surprise victory, key ministers Peter Costello and Tony Abbott launched a series of personal attacks, attempting to dismantle the man rather than the policies.
The tactic backfired because they actually provided Latham with an extra boost. Despite his own track record for belligerent behaviour, people previously disinterested in politics wanted to know more about the man who had raised such heat from the Liberal leadership.
Latham appeals because he is different. He has a few interesting ideas which he has had the discipline to craft into books (as opposed to Peter Costello who sprouts half-baked ideas in the occasional forgettable speech).
Mr Latham is also straight-talking and a genuine product of a working class or perhaps the non-working class (welfare) background. And, if we are to believed, he appears to be in politics because he genuinely wants to help the more unfortunate Australians who are trapped in that black hole of dependancy and government handouts, and who need a hand-up rather than a hand-out.
This is certainly a refreshing change from many ambitious Labor figures in Australia who are either in politics as a career path, or social change theorists and engineers.
In fact, if there is one way to differentiate Mark Latham from just about all his colleagues is that he is the first Labor figure in memory who has been an open champion of the poor, which is in itself an indictment of the Labor Party.
For all that, Latham is green and still largely untested in the political arena, and very significantly he owes his ascendancy to the party’s left.
During an extended honeymoon period he will not be put under the microscope on the policies which matter, mainly taxation and where and how government money will be spent and cut. That will come in time.
It has been said repeatedly that Mr Howard is yet to find the chink in the armour, and that he is floundering and “rattled”.
This is true to a certain extent while Mr Howard tries to find his way around a man he never expected to be leader.
More importantly, however, the Prime Minister will have to begin to think about his own alternative fourth term agenda to match Labor’s raft of new ideas.
In other words, if it wants to win another term the Government has to stop giving Latham oxygen and get on with the business of government.