An Australian lesson or two for needy Labour leaders

A couple of weeks ago Bruce Hawker dropped in for a chat with the Prime Minister’s advisers.

Hawker is an Australian political and public affairs consultant. He devised a strategy for the Bob Carr government in New South Wales to counter the inroads One Nation was making on race grounds into the Labour vote in the suburbs: tell those voters Labour was aware they had concerns, wanted to hear them and would address them. Carr got the suburban “wedge” back.

You heard a version of this here on February 23, the day of the U-turns on race and school mergers. Helen Clark had had an initial flick of advice from Hawker and grasped at it. Hawker’s later visit fleshed out that initial advice.

On Friday some of Clark’s ministers will have another brush with Australian Labour thinking. The meteoric new Labour leader, Mark Latham, will drop by on a flying visit.

Until early this month, when Clark met Latham in Canberra, only one of her ministers, Steve Maharey, had spoken to him (because I introduced them). So when Latham was elected leader in December, Clark drew a near blank when she asked if any minister knew much of him.

That was remarkably remiss. Australia is vital to this country and you might expect a major party to keep in close touch with its Canberra counterpart, spot the up-and-comers and build personal relationships to be translated later into goodwill at the bargaining table.

It was also astonishingly remiss on another count. Latham has been the most productive and innovative thinker on the Labour side of politics in our part of the world and one of the most in the world. How many Labour ministers here have read the new books (let alone have written any, as Latham has)? Very few. Bar a deviation or two, they settled their ideology long ago.

Latham is living proof that the mild left’s ideology is far from settled. There is not space here to traverse his multitudinous ideas which are of varying quality, durability and political saleability. But try this example of an un-Labour (but potentially Labour) idea: “Institutional power needs to be pushed downwards, so that a self-reliant public can make more of its own decisions at a community or neighbourhood level.” And this: “Social justice relies on giving workers an ownership stake´┐Ż A nation of asset-owners is an egalitarian nation.”

Latham has a voracious and restless intellect but he is also a feet-on-the-ground politician, representing one of Sydney’s disaffected lower-income western suburbs, once solidly Labour. That’s where he was a child. He knows the territory.

He describes it as the territory of the outsider. It is light years distant from the latte houses, trattorias and wine bars of the big-city Labour insiders and their chattering-class cheer-leaders. And Latham appears to have connected with the outsiders: he has John Howard’s Liberals on the run when only three months ago they looked near impregnable and Labour was a basket case.

Demystify the socialist construct built around the Labour cause, Latham in effect has been saying: what Labour was actually doing from its earliest years was giving voice and access to power to the outsiders — in those days the “working class”. “People are longing to belong,” he has written.

But, Labour bigwigs here would protest, their policies are aimed primarily at the outsiders: state housing, benefits and health care palliate disadvantage; the workplace policies are removing some of the caprice.

True. Except in three respects.

One is that the workplace laws are designed alongside union leaders — and these days most union leaders drink latte with the best of the politico insiders. Only 12 per cent of private sector workers are in unions and young workers seem disinclined to sign up. (The public sector does better because that’s where the big factories — schools, hospitals — are nowadays. But that will change, too, regardless of ideology.)

The second is that in a diverse society too much attention to one lot of outsiders can miff another lot. The attention to Maori — who, whatever Don Brash says from the ramparts of his eighteenth-century ideological fortress, are mostly outsiders — appears to have caused a lot of suburban and other non-Maori outsiders to think Maori have been made insiders by Clark and Co.

The third is the patina of “political correctness” which glistens on Labour’s moral agenda and much of the rest. This is vastly overstated by Labour’s critics but it has some resonance in the suburbs, even though polls and focus groups say the suburbs are liberal on moral issues. Translated, it probably means the suburbs are saying: Labour’s leaders are not of us; they don’t drink their wine from boxes.

That is what Labour ministers can learn from Latham on Friday. He is not the whole answer to Labour’s prayers here or in Australia, despite a polling astonishment to match Brash’s. But he is a peppery challenge to the settled thinking which could cut this government down in its prime.