Latham Agonistes


Gee, thanks, Mark. Just when it looked like Kim Beazley’s grip on the federal opposition leader’s job was weakening, you’ve gone and prolonged his disastrous leadership of the Labor Party. Not only that, but with your praise, you’ve planted the kiss of death on the one frontbencher actually capable of reviving the party – Julia Gillard.

The Latham Diaries, published this week, are delicious and despicable and insightful, all at the same time. They are larded with the juiciest gossip about the sex lives and drinking habits of politicians and many of my former colleagues in the media. They are indiscreet, to the point of treachery, about friends and colleagues but that only makes them very instructive about the secret reality of Australian politics.

Thanks Cathy Wilcox at the <i>Sydney Morning Herald</i>” src=”” /></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks <a target=Cathy Wilcox at the Sydney Morning Herald

But my greatest fear about Latham’s diaries is that they are ultimately self-defeating. As Gillard pointed out last Friday, all the legitimate criticisms of Labor’s corrosive, self-serving internal culture will be lost among the bile.

We don’t need to hear that Beazley’s office might have been spreading rumours about Latham’s sex life to know that Beazley is an utterly ineffective leader, completely devoid of ideas, idealism and charisma. We already know that had he been leader during 2002-2003, he would have led the party, without shame, into full support for George W Bush’s illegal war in Iraq. After all, in the 1980s, as Defence Minister, he was a supplicant to the Reagan Administration – yes, the most right-wing, reactionary administration in the United States, until Dubya arrived – urging them not to accept New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange’s courageous declaration of nuclear-free independence. When he could have stood up for something right, and sent an Australian frigate into Suva harbour in 1987 to restore Fiji’s democratically elected Labour Government that had been toppled in a racist coup, he squibbed it.

We already know that Beazley’s flabby corpus is only a physical sign of a flabby, undisciplined intellect, of a brain that has been unable to commit anything coherent to paper, despite 25 years in public life and a Rhodes Scholarship. But Latham’s suggestion that Beazley is not fit enough to ‘clean the toilets in Parliament House’ is unnecessarily vitriolic. Rather, Beazley should be nestled in a university, teaching military history, albeit in a very boring fashion to a tiny handful of students.

The problem is that Latham’s attacks on Beazley are so unrestrained, so vituperative, that they will only encourage sympathy for him. Latham’s scattergun approach to his enemies – giving a spray to everyone – is so inexact that it weakens the criticism of a failed leader. No wonder John Howard has leapt to Beazley’s defence as a ‘decent man’; he wants to keep him in place, the least threatening opposition leader since Alexander Downer. Labor loyalists beware.

While Latham’s diaries contain some essential truths – especially about the undemocratic power of factions and the way their bosses are happy to divide up even the miserable spoils of opposition, rather than working in unity to win government – they also lack credibility on one vital point. Latham, himself, was a creature of the factions, even of the notorious New South Wales Right.

Latham once worked in the belly of the very beast he has criticised, as education and research officer at NSW ALP headquarters. When he ran for preselection for the NSW State seat of Liverpool in 1989, he was the Right’s candidate, the machine’s man. Latham never actually had the numbers in Liverpool – they were always behind Paul Lynch, the feisty and principled left-winger who eventually got the seat – but Mark was happy to accept the patronage of the machine to get him into parliament.

As the member for the Federal seat of Werriwa, Latham later lacked the numbers in his own electorate always vulnerable to a challenge from Lynch if he wanted to transfer from State to Federal politics. But again, Mark was protected by the machine, which never exposed him to the rigours of a rank and file preselection. It is only now, out of parliament and on a $66,000-a-year taxpayer funded pension, indexed to inflation for life, that Mark has become such a courageous critic of the factional warlords and their corruption.

Thanks to Cathy Wilcox at the <i>Sydney Morning Herald</i>” src=”” /></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a target=Cathy Wilcox at the Sydney Morning Herald

Nor should we believe Latham’s insistent claims that he is happy being a ‘home dad’ a luxury available only to the rich or the publicly funded. Sure, he may delight right now in being at home with his infant boys, reading those Mem Fox books and making chicken pasta dishes. But Latham, who has given close study to childhood development, would know that within a few years his boys will tire of an obsessively interested father and shuck off his attention.

Where will that leave him? A bitter fiftysomething, unemployed for a decade and, perhaps, unemployable; a man with a big intellect, to whom people would like to give a job except for the fear that, should they cross him, he will squeal publicly about the details of their most private communications.

Latham’s suggestions that he never wants another job remind me of David Brent, the pathetic boss character in the brilliant BBC mockumentary, The Office. When it was pointed out to Brent that his self-produced single, a saccharine rip-off of Simply Red’s ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’, never made the top 40, he shot back, ‘Didn’t want it to.’ It was the defensive response of a shattered man.

The truth is that Mark Latham wanted desperately to be prime minister. Gough Whitlam had planted the seed in his mind, when he worked for the former prime minister, and the idea blossomed from there. He wrote a slew of books “ most of them unreadable, but at least he tried, unlike the allegedly intellectual Beazley “ all designed to burnish his reputation as a policy leader, if not a party leader. He did not contest the party leadership in December 2003 as an act of duty but of ambition. He had some very good ideas for the nation but he was also driven by resentments stretching back to his childhood.

He would have been an exciting prime minister. He might have even been a gutsy one, taking on the media moguls and the corporate chieftains if he actually meant what he says in his diaries. But he could have also been a very dangerous prime minister, using his power to settle scores. (Of course, John Howard has done precisely the same thing “ getting even with the ABC, the unions, the universities, the public service “ it’s just that his language is prim.)

The great tragedy of The Latham Diaries is that they end up radiating more heat than light. Reading his book is like peering through the keyhole into a dark shed, where the occasional shaft of light “ the occasional flash of insight “ comes through the crevices. The hate gets in the way.

Mark Latham was a ravenous consumer of textbooks, especially on economics, and maybe that was his problem. Perhaps before he wrote his diaries “ and they show every sign of having been cobbled together, after the fact, from haphazard notes “ he might have read the great Martin Luther King, a man who had every reason to hate: ‘Hatred is always tragic. It distorts the personality and scars the soul. It is as injurious to the hater as it is the hated.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.