Last month, Federal Labor Parliamentarians, dismayed by the inability of Simon Crean to match John Howard, decided to gamble on a new-look Labor leadership, electing Mark Latham to lead the party into the next Federal Election.
Since then, Mr Latham has spelt out, in a number of interviews, the general policy direction on which he intends to run in 2004.
His agenda includes a new emphasis on environment issues, gay rights, and the republic – targeted at disgruntled Labor voters – and the “old” issues of health and education, which Simon Crean had run for the past two years, but which had been largely neutralised by the passage of reforms in both Medicare and tertiary funding.
Specifically, Mark Latham says he will put environmental policies – including ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, further controls on logging in state forests, and extension of national parks (such as the former defence and quarantine facilities at Point Nepean, in Victoria) – back onto the national agenda.
All these are symbolic issues, dear to the hearts of the Left, but arguably seriously mistaken on both practical and environmental grounds.
No warming trend
For example, despite self-serving reports which purport to “prove” that increased greenhouse gases are causing rising temperature levels on the earth’s surface, the scientific evidence shows no continuous warming trend since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
In any case, the Kyoto Protocol, which is supposed to cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, will do no such thing. For one thing, it does not apply to the developing world, including fast growing nations such as China and India.
Additionally, its terms have been explicitly rejected by the United States and Russia. Only Western Europe, Canada, and a few other countries will be bound by it, making it virtually useless.
Another new issue which Mark Latham has flagged include a commitment to gay rights, which includes not only access to partner’s superannuation, but also presumably support for gay marriages and adoption rights for gay couples.
Again, Mr Latham is attacking a myth. There is no discrimination against homosexuals in Australia today.
However, it is important to understand that the institution of marriage, by law and custom, involves a man and a woman, primarily because the institution is designed to provide stability for the family and protection for their children.
To the extent that de factos are treated similarly to those who have married, it is because the law is designed to protect women who provide domestic service and to protect children born in such informal relationships.
The law says nothing about other types of domestic arrangements.
Mark Latham’s promise to reopen the republic issue, made on ABC radio last month, is basically a rerun of the plan unveiled by Paul Keating in the early 1990s.
This culminated in a historic vote in 1999, when people in every state rejected a “politicians’ republic”, where the Australian President would have been appointed by a committee appointed by Parliament.
In order to overcome the people’s rejection of a politicians’ republic, Mr Latham proposes to change the process. Under his proposal, people will first vote in a “plebiscite” – a non-binding referendum – on whether they want a republic or not.
An affirmative vote would then be followed by a further plebiscite on possible models, followed – says Mr Latham – by a full referendum on the preferred model.
His plan is designed to split the alliance which prevented the adoption of a republic in the referendum conducted in 1999: between those supported the status quo, in which the head of State is the Governor-General, and those who wanted a directly-elected President.
More fundamentally, however, Mark Latham fails to address the central argument raised by Professor David Flint in The Twilight of the Elites, that Australia is already a constitutional democracy, whose head of state is appointed for a term of office by the Government of the day.
Any alternative, Professor Flint points out, will radically change the power structure in Australia, with consequences which threaten stable government in Australia.
Yet it is undoubtedly true that the Howard Government can be defeated.
While Mr Howard might be tempted to rely on the Government’s capacity to distribute some of its huge budget surplus before an election, it should keep in mind that Australia’s current prosperity has been procured largely by foreign borrowing, leaving Australia with a mounting foreign debt and increasingly at the mercy of foreign lenders.
If, or when, they lose confidence in the Australian economy, much of the foreign capital which has provided the economic foundation of the Government’s vaunted economic success could disappear, almost overnight.
It is hard to imagine any Government surviving that kind of shock.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council