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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 October, 2004, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
Labor's rebranded leader
By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney

Australian voters may well be asking themselves this question as the country prepares for a general election: Will the real Mark Latham please stand up?

Mark Latham
Mark Latham gained fame for his confrontational style
The 43-year-old politician became leader of the Labor opposition last December, and since then has undergone a thorough image makeover.

The "old" Mark Latham has been put into early retirement in favour of a "new" smoother, more statesman-like version.

Nicknamed "Biff " - an Australian colloquialism meaning rough and tough - Mr Latham became famous for his confrontational and colourful style.

He once called George W Bush "the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory".

Then there was the notorious incident with a taxi driver, who ended up with a broken arm after a dispute with Mr Latham over a fare.

Ten months of grooming has transformed the Labor leader from parliamentary warrior into a steady, if unspectacular, would-be prime minister.

The race is between a rather staid and solid John Howard, and Mark Latham - who is much more interesting but less well known
Gerard Henderson, former member of Mr Howard's staff
His performances are carefully managed, and there has been little danger of damaging gaffes, tantrums or feisty outbursts.

But opinion is divided over whether this change amounts to a maturing of raw political talent, or a shameless attempt to hide fundamental flaws in an aggressive loose cannon.

Greg Craven, from Curtin University, told Australian television that voters would see through any attempt to cynically manipulate the image of the Labor leader.

"He either wins or loses, but there's nothing surer than [the fact] he'll lose if he's Mark Latham pretending not to be Mark Latham," Mr Craven predicted.

Younger alternative

The opposition leader comes from the sprawling, blue-collar suburbs of western Sydney.

He has presented himself as a youthful alternative to the current prime minister, 65-year-old John Howard, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office.

Voters in the farming town of Bundaberg give their views

Gerard Henderson, a former member of Mr Howard's staff, believes that the rebranding of Mark Latham has not masked doubts over his abilities.

"The essential problem he's got is that he's unpredictable," Mr Henderson told BBC News Online.

"He may seem to some Australians to be a risk. I'm not saying he can't win - he can win.

"The race is between a rather staid and solid John Howard, and Mark Latham - who is much more interesting but less well-known."

Mr Latham became the Labor leader after his demoralised party dumped the unpopular Simon Crean.

Mr Latham's appointment was a huge gamble and cast him into battle against Mr Howard, the wily and seasoned conservative.

The new leader's personal transformation has coincided with the re-birth of Labor's election hopes. It is currently running neck-and-neck with Mr Howard's governing coalition in the opinion polls.

Fascinating contest

In reality, the Labor leader is a deep-thinker and a protégé of the grand old man of Labor politics, Gough Whitlam.

Antony Green, an election analyst for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said Mr Latham's ability to revive an ailing party has made the election campaign a fascinating contest.

"He's an interesting character," Mr Green told the BBC.

"He's one of the least experienced leaders to take a party to an election in Australian history."

In the marginal seat of Hinkler in the northern state of Queensland, voters in the farming town of Bundaberg had mixed views on the Labor leader.

Pensioner Pat Lydiard told BBC News Online she had no confidence in him.

"I wouldn't trust him as far as I could kick him," she said.

But "Rambo" Simpson, a fruit picker, said the Labor leader could count on his support.

"I'd like to see Mark Latham get in. I think we've had enough of Howard and we're looking forward a new person coming along," he said.

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