Latham, then immersed in a makeover of Liverpool Council, was trying to be part of the national conversation about identity, native title and policy reform; he eventually prevailed due to diligence and opportunism. In that steam-age of news and opinion - before mass mobile-phone use, e-mail, the internet and bloggers - Latham became a lively go-to contributor with a lightning quick ability to turn an idea into newsprint. As far as I could tell, Latham wasn't trying to be a pundit like the Australian's Paddy McGuinness or Frank Devine. But he did want to make his name on the same page by offering solutions to problems. Here was a player, not a critic. In that sense, Latham has more in common with John Howard than either would dare to admit.
Since becoming leader of the federal parliamentary Labor party nine months ago, Latham has been thrust to the center of Australia's public sphere. His arrival has revived interest in politics - and Labor's electoral prospects. On Oct. 9, voters will have the chance to promote Latham, and tap the Prime Minister on the shoulder. But outside of the rarefied world of politicians and the professionals who live off them, Latham is barely known. The electorate may have formed some simple views about his personal style: intemperate and irreverent, aggressive and sincere, ordinary and extraordinary. But if they know anything about his policies, it's likely that an image of parents reading to their children will be the extent of it.
One surprising aspect of Latham's short time at the Labor helm has been his political outmaneuvering of a P.M. with 30 Canberra years on the clock. Think M.P.s' superannuation entitlements and the amendments forced on Howard over the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. These episodes - and several others - reveal that Latham has terrific instincts for the nitty-gritty of daily political combat. But the truly amazing feature of the rise of Latham during an election year has been that the one-time policy wonk has opted for slogans rather than details, symbols instead of costed measures. We've heard about Latham's "ladder of opportunity," but what kind of tax reform will secure the rungs? Although this policy-lite approach seems not to have hurt Latham's showing in opinion polls, it won't be tolerated in the biggest poll of all.
In 2001, Labor thought it had the election in its pocket. Kim Beazley did not release the bulk of his policies until the official campaign. This approach, which has become known as the "small-target" strategy, had worked before. It is identical to the one that Howard employed in 1996 to win office. But after almost six years, voters did not know what alternative leader Beazley stood for. Latham once vowed never to adopt such a negative ploy. Yet, here he is, with under 40 days to articulate and sell an integrated platform to a public that is, at best, merely curious about him and his party. Winning the campaign skirmishes and crafting clever attack lines will not be enough to unseat the incumbent or shift the electorate's inertia. Latham will be forced to talk serious stuff non-stop through the footy finals and school holidays. Even if the experts mark it as superior, it's not clear whether voters will be able to digest the policy detail; Howard certainly won't be vacating the airwaves for the new boy.
Governments are intrinsically hard to shift. Yet this campaign already feels different. Not because there is a great mood for change. Or that there is a crisis at hand. Or even that there's some historical crossroads nearby. In a nutshell, here is a contest between a government that people know in their bones and an alternative team whose new leader dispenses good vibes and pixie dust. There is a feeling that two well-matched candidates are about to extend themselves; there will be a struggle across the generations, to be sure. And, if Latham and Howard stay true to their harsher selves, it will be a fight without sentimentality or sanctimony.
If one leader dares to think he can taste victory, the other may be fearing the awful finality of loss. Character is on trial, but so is the question of what inspires voters' sense of trust. Both will campaign on promises of a long, bright future. Who will win? That will depend on whether Australians are satisfied with what they've got in the hand, and the policies that have brought them here. Or if they are prepared to risk some of that comfort for, well, we haven't yet been told what, when, why or how.