A matter of two trusts

Trust is not a word to be tossed around in politics. Voters say they don’t have much trust in politicians. But trust is at the core of the impending Australian election.

The issue is how much the Labour party’s new leader Mark Latham can be trusted — not whether he keeps promises but whether he has the experience and level-headedness to run the country. The incumbent Liberals will pound this hard.

Latham is a mercurial figure.

Stories abound of his aggression, physical and verbal. Politicians are expected to be aggressive — but not to women, taxidrivers who end up with broken arms and business groups trying to engage.

Latham teems with ideas. Some are interesting, some well-researched, some best quietly dropped. He is one of the most inventive thinkers on the modern left but has a reputation for not thinking through detail. Carry-through is an indicator of trustability.

Like National’s Don Brash, Latham has large areas of inexpertise. His most notable mistake has been in national security policy — he promised to have the troops home from Iraq by Christmas. The Liberals paint that as anti-American, which, unlike here, goes down badly with most Australians. Former leader Kim Beazley, a pro-American hawk, had to be recalled to the front bench to fix the mess.

Latham comes from a housing estate. He speaks that language, direct and straightforward, sometimes peppered with swearwords. His values are no-nonsense — those of the Aussie battler. Though highly intellectual, Latham is also the bloke.

Latham is charismatic but also aloof. He can charm but charm does not ooze from him. He could win or lose an election by his campaign conduct. That makes him a tricky and unpredictable opponent for a canny conservative sniffing a fourth term like John Howard.

But Howard runs on trust, as the known quantity and quality from a long stint as Treasurer in the late 1970s/early 1980s and eight years as Prime Minister. Wrapped in the American flag, he pumps national security as the man who can keep boat people out and terror at bay. Dull, predictable, reassuring.

His idea of reform, even where his backers want reform, is incremental. Deregulation of the labour and other markets has been cautious and always with a sympathetic eye to sensitive industries and jobs.

Howard buys votes shamelessly, scraping the fiscal barrel before each election, in the time-honoured tradition of tinkering conservatives. His special manoeuvre this time is a $600 welfare bonus, which boosted retail spending just ahead of the election. Sure, there is a risk of Budget deficits if the economy dips but so far he has got away with it each time.

Howard will go into the election with a buoyant economy. Why would voters switch when times are good? Moreover, Labour can’t be trusted not to trigger a rise in interest rates with its economic and social spending policies. Higher interest rates would make life edgy in a debt-ridden binge-consumer economy critically dependent on house prices holding up.

To prove it can be trusted, Labour tries to match new revenue or savings to each promise in health and education, in which it has an electoral advantage.

So what would a Latham government bring?

The key to Latham is in a line of thought he developed while a backbencher refusing to serve under Beazley. He reckons Labour should stand for “outsiders”. Too many of its top people have become “insiders”, latte drinkers divorced from the suburbs by geography or ideology.

So Labour should set up a “ladder of opportunity” for the outsiders. This is not the state doing things for people, taking responsibility for how well they do and excusing them if they do poorly. Latham’s ladder is the state giving people a base (the ladder’s bottom rung) and making sure the rest of the rungs — such as education and health care — are in place so people can do the climbing themselves.

This has implications for business because one rung on the ladder is a tighter workplace relations regime to give workers more bargaining leverage. Latham has also attacked the “big end of town” — big business — with vigour.

But a ladder of opportunity also sounds more like what low-to-middle-income suburb-dwellers, many of whom went to Howard last time, expect of a government. That is Latham’s strength. Top that up with his early forties freshness against Howard’s mid-sixties staleness and he is in with a chance.

But Howard has trust and Latham has yet to earn that.