Would the Next Mark Latham Please Stand Up?


I find politics entertaining and interesting. I suspect I am in the minority.

Most people seem to be disillusioned with politics. What they see played out on the nightly news seems to confirm their suspicion that politicians are all the same, can’t be trusted and will do or say anything to get elected. Debnam says Iemma is soft on ‘Middle Eastern crime.’ Iemma calls Debnam a liar.

That’s why Mark Latham’s ascendancy to the leadership of the Labor Party aroused much interest. Latham was different. Less polished, maybe. But he questioned shibboleths, such as parliamentary superannuation. He went to schools and read books to children. He talked about early childhood development. He pledged to vacate Kirribilli House. Latham even spurned the Commonwealth car available to the leader of the Opposition – driving himself even, on one occasion, to Government House! He engaged with a disengaged electorate and talked about issues that mattered to them.

Latham’s resignation from politics was also different. Leadership resignations are normally pretty formal affairs. Suited politician at the lectern. Australian flag hanging limply in the background. Supportive colleagues acting as wallpaper. All carefully stage managed and arranged. Yawn.

Yet, just over a year ago, on 18 January 2005 at Hallinan Park a very different political resignation took place. On that day at about 2:30 in the afternoon, Mark Latham arrived in his beige Magna, stood before the assembled media scrum and gave his final public statement as leader. He read a short statement where he cited the need ‘to put my family and my health first’ and resigned as Labor leader and Member for Werriwa.

Thanks to Bill Leak

On 19 March 2005, Labor won the by-election for the seat with a swing of 3 per cent. In April the newly elected Member for Werriwa, Chris Hayes, paid tribute to the ‘essence of Mark Latham,’ saying that he had ‘built a political career from a fundamental involvement in his local community.’

Hayes went on to say that the people of Werriwa

saw [Latham] as one of them: as a Westie. They thought of him as a local lad who was raised in difficult circumstances, attended local schools, went to university and achieved distinction in his studies. They were proud of him. They knew he remained one of them.

For how many politicians can this be said? When the public regards their political representatives as ‘one of them’ then they are more likely to feel their interests are being looked after and have more confidence and interest in politics (in general) as a result. And so they should.

Latham wanted his own story about rising from a poor neighbourhood to having a shot at the top job to become the Australian story; he wanted this to be a genuine country of opportunity. Such a story, he argued, was becoming less possible in John Howard’s Australia – where welfare and church groups warn us about the possible development of a permanent underclass; where it’s possible for kids to grow up without healthy role models to teach them necessary life, home and employment skills. Howard’s Australia pays only lip service to such issues.

After 11 years in politics and one year one month and 16 days as Labor leader, Latham’s exit from politics presents us with the question: what kind of politicians do we want? A careerist machine operator who devotes energy to maintaining the system that sustains them? Or one full of ideas to improve Australia socially and economically?

While the lasting image of Latham could be of a bitter and hateful figure pouring criticism on his former Party and colleagues, it is Latham’s example of doing things differently, demolishing sacred cows and engaging with a normally disengaged electorate that should be remembered and emulated.

So, one year on, would the next Mark Latham please stand up?

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.