Saturday, October 02, 2004

(Ancient) History Repeating

This week I figured out who Mark Latham reminds me of - the Ancient Greek General, Themistocles (I mean, duh!).

Like Iron Mark, Themistocles was a guy from the suburbs who made his way into the Athenian Parliament in his early 30s. Themistocles was the archetypal loner / outsider, who won his place on the proscenium through the force of his innovative ideas, rather than factional support.

At this time (around 493BC) the Athenian city-state was experiencing the aftershock of the democratic revolution, and people at every level of the society were grappling with the loss of certainty that social transition brought. Themistocles welcomed the change, and his ideas were about how to respond to the new society - much like Mark Latham's political blueprint is based on new ways of building community following the extensive economic reforms of the past two decades.

Mark and Themistocles even had similar campaigning techniques - Themistocles shocked his colleagues by making an effort to learn the names of as many citizens as possible. Mark Latham has been running community forums throughout the country ever since his election to the ALP leadership, and frequently links his policy announcements to conversations he had in town hall meetings during this period (see his budget reply for the lengthiest example).

One of Themistocles greatest political achievements came during a series of crucial wars with the mighty Persian Empire. The Persians had attacked the Athenians in the Battle of Marathon in 492 BC. Despite the Persian army being a lot bigger than the Athenians, the Athenians won the battle through superior strategy and motivation.

The Athenians were very proud of the victory over the Persians, with some succumbing to over-confidence. Themistocles was not one of these people - he knew that the Persian threat would return and that Athens had to start making preparations if they were to survive a second assault.

During this period, a large vein of silver was found in a mine near Athens. Normally the profit from the silver was distributed equally among the Athenian population, but Themistocles argued that it was time to break from tradition and use the silver to a build a powerful navy to defend Athens against the next Persian attack.

Themistocles' approach was opposed by his archrival, Aristides, an aristocratic conservative who wanted to distribute the spoils to the people as normal, rather than invest it.

The debate had heightened importance because the Athenians had introduced a parliamentary reform that allowed politicians to be ostracised - i.e. exiled for ten years. The measure acted as a parliamentary circuit breaker in the event of a power struggle. Each year the popular Assembly voted on whether a member should be ostracised. If the Assembly decided that someone should be ostracised, the citizens voted on who should go, and the person with the most votes was banished (kind of like a Parliamentary Big Brother).

Themistocles and Aristides each staked their reputations on the silver mine debate, with the loser to be banished.

Thankfully for the Athenians, Themistocles won the argument and Athens got its triremes. This decision was critical to the Athenians later victory over Persia when the Empire attacked a second time.

In one week Australians face a similar choice to the ancient Athenians. On one hand there is the conservative political leader who, after a period of economic prosperity, is offering to simply return the money to the people ($600 payments to families, $200 payments to self-funded retirees, the Medicare safety-net) to prevent him from being exiled from Government. One the other hand there is a young radical who is asking Australians to forego these one off payments and invest the spoils of economic prosperity in Australia's health and education systems because these will underpin Australia's quality of life and economic and social success in the future.

I'm just hoping that history repeats itself.


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