Tim Blair


New Criterion



Tuesday, September 28, 2004
He's Australia's Political Idol, but is that what you want your Prime Minister to be?

Henny Herald has done some focus group work on our two aspiring Prime Ministers, John Howard and Mark Latham.

Before I go on, you should note that this was probably part of the polling operation that gave us last Saturday's Henny headlines about a six percent lead for Howard's party, a lead no other poll has been able to match.

What Henny finds is that the electors like the Latham story, the image he projects.
The Labor leader was passionate, sincere, down to earth, determined, confident, self-made, youthful, a fresh face, intelligent, a fighter, a believer, a working man, an intellectual - all descriptions offered spontaneously by people in three focus groups convened for the Herald last week by pollsters ACNielsen.

His freshness came up a lot: "I'm bored with Howard. Latham is young and fresh - he's also from western Sydney," volunteered a male medical student.

And among the group of eight young single people, passionate was the favourite adjective for Latham. Across all three groups the phrases "family man" and "a fair go" came up, too. A few people called him an "average Joe", in a way that hinted at appreciation
What's striking about this appreciation of Latham's style is the absence of appreciation for Latham's self-proclaimed ideology.

Perhaps that's why, when it comes to the grown-up business of voting, the way Latham handles the microphone carries less weight than what he shouts into it.
But then the positives started to give way to negatives. He was too emotional, impulsive, abrasive, inexperienced, untried, no track record, angry; he has a temper. The word that came up most often was inexperienced.

The young people seemed concerned about his emotions: "It shows weakness," said a young man. The parents of young families mentioned his temper a lot. "He's a bull in a china shop," offered one young mother. "I think he's a bit restricted - he'd love to break out and be really crude," suspected a warehouse manager with two children.
Older voters thought
"Whitlam's apprentice," said one man. "Modelled himself on Whitlam," said another. "Tutored by Whitlam," said a third. Their manner did not hint at affection for the man who once hired a young Latham as his researcher.
And then there's John Howard:
When it came to John Howard, it generally went the other way - voters' first thoughts were unflattering.

The Prime Minister was a grump, old-fashioned, 1950s, whingey, peevish, a liar, a bit devious, a twister of truth, evasive, boring, bland, short, "a bit of a grandpa - he looks like he needs help to cross the street".

But after the initial reactions came a generally more positive stream of thoughts. Howard was experienced, stable, decent, in control, qualified, solid, tried and true, doesn't give up, a good leader, solid, a guy you can't push over. And the phrase that came up more than any other - "he has a track record".

Such are the limits of image marketing, or 'values politics' as it is called today.