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Newcomer Latham Uses His Youth in Race to Become Australia's PM - 2004-10-04


Australia could have one of its youngest prime ministers in history if Labor Party leader Mark Latham wins the general election on October 9. Mr. Latham hopes Labor will oust the government of John Howard, who has been in power for nearly nine years.

Mark Latham, at 43, is the Australian Labor Party's youngest leader in more than a century.

He is 22 years younger than Prime Minister John Howard, and has been at the head of the Labor Party for less than a year. Mr. Latham, in his official campaign speech, appealed to voters to see him as the man with the youth and energy to lead Australia.

"We've got a great public plan for the future," he said. "Mr. Howard's got a private plan for retirement. I say to the Australian people I'm ready to lead. He's ready to leave."

Mark Latham is a brash and feisty campaigner, known for his combative style and colorful language.

He once broke a taxi-driver's arm in a dispute over the fare.

In 2002 he publicly called John Howard a foul name for supporting the United States threat to go war in Iraq.

Some of his strongest language in Parliament has targeted the U.S. president.

"Bush himself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Bush himself is the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory," said Mr. Latham. "It's a bit rich for him to be preaching democratic values when he failed to win a democratic majority himself in the 2000 presidential election."

Mark Latham's aggressive style has its roots in his working-class background in western Sydney where he grew up in public housing. There he developed a strong sense of the gap between rich and poor.

He attended a government high school and later worked as a barman to pay his way through university.

After graduating with an honors degree in economics, he worked as a researcher for his political hero and mentor, Gough Whitlam, who was a Labor prime minister in the 1970s.

Mr. Whitlam, now 88, has long seen Mr. Latham as a future prime minister.

"I am very optimistic because he expresses the views of coming generations and he's such a contrast to the present prime minister and those who are struggling to succeed him who all speak in those dated terms, expressing those dated attitudes," said Mr. Whitlam.

Mark Latham entered Parliament in 1994, fittingly holding the same Sydney seat of Werriwa that Gough Whitlam held from 1952 to 1978.

Since he became its leader last December, Mr. Latham has worked to moderate his abrasive image and restore a sense of direction for the Labor Party.

His vision for a Labor government is about social opportunity and equity for all, through education, tax reform and universal health care.

On foreign policy, Mr. Latham has been a strong critic of the U.S. war in Iraq. He has promised to withdraw Australia's 850 troops from Iraq by Christmas, in contrast with John Howard's pledge to keep them there as long as necessary to stabilize the country.

He has since endorsed Australia's alliance with the United States, but says it must not come at the expense of the country's role in the Asia Pacific.

"The real job for Australia is in our region," stated Mr. Latham. "Working with our neighbors and the United States. This is where our permanent interests lie, not on the other side of the world. This is where Labor will dedicate our resources in the war against terror - to our region, to our part of the world, to the real security of the Australian people in the future."

Within three months of taking the Labor leadership, Latham's personal approval rating was the highest approval rating of any opposition leader in 30 years.

His campaign policies on health care and tax changes, while appealing to Labor's traditional base, have also targeted many of the voters that Mr. Howards' conservative Coalition sees as its own.

Mark Latham's strength lies in his energy and fresh ideas. But many analysts say he lacks the experience of John Howard and note he has never served in a government. To win the October 9 election he must counter the governing Coalition's attempts to portray him as an unknown quantity and a risk too great for voters to take.

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