Latham's lament


Mark Latham has never been able to admit that he’s wrong. It is probably his biggest failing.

Last week’s rash statement was the last in a list of avoidable mistakes committed by the former Leader of the Opposition since the federal election last October.

Latham didn’t take responsibility for the election loss. He stupidly held on to Simon Crean when he should have shown the Shadow Treasurer the way to the backbench. Stuck in a stupor of self-pity and self-analysis, he struggled to lead a party in desperate need. Endlessly slammed by the Press Gallery in the months following the election – probably unfairly “ Latham to his credit kept showing up every day. Privately, he was bewildered and stung by the vicious commentary. Then of course, Latham went MIA whilst the single biggest natural disaster in modern history engulfed us. By the time he realised the enormity of the tragedy it was too late. Incapacitated by pancreatitis Latham compounded his problems by trying to conceal his illness from the public and his colleagues.

Alan Moir
Sydney Morning Herald

After an absurd game of hide and seek, which included being spirited out of the family home at 4am by his sister on the morning of the first statement a fortnight ago, finally, last Tuesday afternoon, Latham stuck his head up. The errant leader turned up to face the cameras at a local park in Ingleburn, only reluctantly agreeing to delay the presser by just fifteen minutes after his staff pleaded with him to allow the media more time to gather.

Having had the nation’s press parked outside his house for days Latham didn’t quite see why he should. Instead of holding a dignified press conference in a controlled environment where he would be able to read his statement and withdraw gracefully, every bit the Leader, he chose to give a royal and final ‘f*** you’ to the media by making them run.

He was not contrite or sheepish. Latham came roaring out of the car, enraged and indignant. His fury was palpable. He delivered a parting shot at his tormentors – aka the media “ and pulled the pin. Not just on the leadership but on the whole show. He was unbowed and unrepentant. He refused to play the game and just one last time he second-guessed his opponents and detractors and had the media chasing their tails. Not once did Latham accept any responsibility for his actions nor admit, that just perhaps, he may have erred.

Latham has always existed in a sphere of relative chaos. As a backbencher and later a junior Minister, Latham and his cohorts did as they pleased. His staff couldn’t always be sure where their boss had been let alone what he might have said. After being elevated by Crean to Shadow Treasurer, the enormity of Latham’s workload meant his staff could keep track of him a little more “ but only just. During parliamentary sitting weeks, long after the House had finished its business for the day, Latham could be found slaving away at his desk writing the speeches he refused to cede to his staff. He pegged back his social activities and late at night he often walked the streets around Parliament House to clear the head and escape the claustrophobic confines of his office.

He was also an accomplished bomb-thrower. The evening Latham went on ABC’s Lateline and coined the now famous ‘Roosters’ phrase, he walked into a favoured Kingston restaurant after his appearance to meet his closest allies, Laurie Brereton and Joel Fitzgibbon, who were there having dinner with friends. Spotting his mates, up went the double air-punch, to the laughing approval of those at the table. Latham was most impressed by his taunt. In a little over five minutes he had effortlessly ridiculed and discredited Stephen Conroy, Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan (much to their fury) and garnered massive press coverage. Too clever by half.

During his tenure as Shadow Treasurer Latham appeared to build momentum without even really trying. But Crean’s demise came too soon. Latham wasn’t ready. He needed more time. Despite Brereton’s manoeuvrings nothing could save the hapless Crean and Latham was given little choice but to put his name forward. Having previously made Beazley a figure of derision, if the big man had stepped up, Latham’s demotion was assured. Thirteen months ago it was the leadership or nothing.

It was still the same last week.

Mark Latham is ill. In fact he’s very sick and he’s scared about being so sick. Having survived cancer in the nineties and defied his doctors by fathering two children, Latham thought he was untouchable. Yet once again he’s been told he has a disease that, if not managed properly, could easily kill him.

Health problems aside, while his leadership was most certainly dead his political career was not. Without doubt he still had much to offer but he chose to go. His young family will benefit from having him around more but within Latham’s decision is an undeniable selfishness. What about his staff? What about his backers and those who voted for him in Werriwa? What about the members of parliament who lost their seats under his watch “ Michelle O’Byrne, Sid Sidebottom, or Christian Zhara. Didn’t they deserve something more from the man they supported?

Of course they did.

Standing by his friend to the bitter end was the Member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon. One of the few to have regular contact with Latham since Christmas, he suspected his leader might resign altogether and so Fitzgibbon directed all his energies into trying to persuade Latham not to make any hasty decisions. The Leader had long cut himself off from staff and colleagues, refusing to communicate with them.

Fitzgibbon came out with his Leader’s permission and attempted to explain Latham’s side. Defend the indefensible. He wanted to give his mate a bit of breathing space, but with some staff and even Latham’s deputy, Jenny Macklin, privately telling journalists the Leader’s behaviour was ‘bizarre’, there was only so much he could do. Although he stemmed the tide, Fitzgibbon was not thanked for his efforts.

Gough Whitlam’s private secretary, Stephen Chatyer, who’s been positioning himself for Labor pre-selection for years, was among the first to learn Latham was calling it quits. It wasn’t long before the extremely efficient NSW Labor Party telegraph came into play “ the word was out. In a final act of loyalty, Fitzgibbon did the media rounds again after the resignation, talking up his mate, not wanting him to be remembered for behaving badly.

For the manner in which he chose to depart, casually abandoning the constituents of Werriwa and because of the shabby way he treated friends like Fitzgibbon and his hard working, long suffering staff, Latham does not deserve such loyalty.

The saddest part in this sorry saga is that Latham, spurred on by utter self-belief in his abilities and his judgement, fervently believed that one day he would lead this country. He worked all his adult life toward this one goal and in the space of just four weeks he threw it all away.

Frankly, if Latham had stuck around, done a few more hard yards, I think he could have been a very good Prime Minister. I believe this because at his core Latham is an ideas man. He has a fine, quick mind and is capable of original thought and bold theories. Whilst some of Latham’s ideas and plans may have been hair-brained and impractical, he got this country talking, discussing and debating “ an essential element for any society to continue to grow and evolve.

Of course this alone is not enough to be PM. Yet given more time to mature, some better policy development, and a more talented frontbench who knows what may have been. It seems such a waste.

It certainly wasn’t enough last year but I’m not confident that anything Labor tried would have been. Howard didn’t win the 1996 election it; was practically handed to him on a silver platter. The same could be said for Bob Hawke back in 1983. Without meaning to trivialise these victories, in 2004 there wasn’t the same mood for change in the electorate that heralded these previous changes in Government. Latham was right when he told the Labor faithful it was not to be their night but he got the reasons for it wrong. Not that he’d ever admit it. The electorate had worked out what Latham, deep-down, already knew – he wasn’t quite ready.

While some will be very pleased to see the back of the Member for Werriwa, and his departure will make it easier for Labor to recover, they have lost a valuable and talented performer. The show will be the poorer without him and certainly much less interesting. I for one will miss him.

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