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The revenge of Mark Latham

The Latham Diaries
Mark Latham
Melbourne University Press, 2005

Mark Latham was a young idealistic figure when he joined the Australian Labour Party in 1979; within a decade he had become a Mayor of the Sydney suburb of Liverpool. In 1994, he became a federal MP, and in 2004 as leader of the Australian Labor Party, he lead the party to defeat in an Australian federal election. In January 2005, he retired from public life, and late last month, his ‘diaries’ were published.

The dairies are almost wholly political, covering his political career from his entry to Federal Parliament, although the published portions of the diary deal mostly with the period when Latham was a major figure in Australian public life, from 2002 to early 2005. One has to wonder at the exact veracity of the material published; as Latham’s career grows and he climbs the ‘greasy pole’, he becomes more and more assidious in keeping his journal. In addition, the diaries deal almost wholly with matters within his own party; of events pertaining to the government he is trying to defeat, Latham has nothing to say; events outside political life have no place whatsover in this book. One suspects these are as much memoirs as diaries, although at any rate we can accept this book as the author’s account of the events he describes.

The diaries reveal a man whose worldview is rather unusual. Latham has no time for the old socialist homilies. He’s opposed to the rent-seeking elements that live in harmony with the Australian Labor Party, and instead chose to identify himself with the ‘aspirational’ voters, ambitious working-class people who have done well for themselves. A perceptive friend remarked to me that “Australia is the place where the English and Irish lower classes went and found paradise”. That is as good a description of the country as any; and these people and their descendants have no time for socialist daydreamers, but they do have a healthy appetite for government services paid for by someone else. Latham looked to make himself the champion of these people.

Latham is, to say the least, a mercurial personality. While he was a smart enough guy, compared to his colleagues, he was a divided soul. While his head was forward looking, trying his hand at the eternal social-democratic dream of ‘reinventing government’, and placing great stress in dispersing power away from government and corporate elites, Latham had the heart and soul of an old fashioned class warrior. He always calls his Liberal opponents ‘Tories’ and hates them; he displays a fair degree of disdain for anyone that is not of his cultural and political type. A rare day at the cricket reveals the truth of the man- he’s a working class yobbo, happiest on the Hill with his rugby-league mates.

To sum up the actual contents, it is basically an account of how Latham’s pure policy driven agenda is constantly thwarted by the ‘Old-Guard’ of the ALP, and the terrible tactics that they, and their mates in the media, employ against him. Despite all this, after many battles, Latham becomes leader, despite many misgivings on the part of his colleagues. At first, all goes well; Latham certainly is different to the regular run of the mill politician, and he has long serving Prime Minister John Howard caught on the hop. But as time goes by, doubts start to emerge about Latham, his character, policies, and his lack of drive for the job. A nasty ex-wife emerges from the past, allegations of sexual misconduct and a mysterious ‘videotape’ emerge, and Latham loses his way. He leads the party to defeat in the election, amid private health worries, and then all hell breaks loose as his internal party enemies plot against him, aided by the media. Latham, sick, disenchanted, decides that the game is not worth the candle, picks up his bat and ball, and goes home.

Any work of an autobiographical nature is revealing, because it is a written self-portrait. It is often amazing the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us. The first thing that should be said is that Latham is a guy that is deeply devoted to his family. Apart from that, it is not clear what is true or false about this guy. Certainly few people have ever been less charitable about others. He revels in an entry running down a rival, or making a joke at someone else’s expense.

Of course, Latham is writing about his party colleagues, and from what can be discerned from other sources, it is quite possible that when Latham describes them as backstabbing, anti-intellectual corrupt cowards, he is stating nothing more then the truth. The ruthless, machine-style nature of Australian Labor Party internal politics has been obvious to the general public for fifty years or more.

So one is obliged to ask how a man could rise to the top of this party after less then ten years in the Federal Parliament. A rise that rapid seems rather unlikely by itself; that such a rapid rise could occur with the man in question having squeaky-clean hands himself seems impossible to credit. But the diaries have no ‘confessions’ of any great intrigues by Latham, only against him.

It must be said that part of Latham’s rapid rise was that he was a talented politician in a deeply untalented party. Latham clearly did care deeply about policy solutions to the problems of people; the diaries themselves suggest that most of his colleagues could not look past their own entitlements as MPs. As a candidate for the office of Prime Minister, though, Latham is caught out by the narrowness of his vision; for Latham, local issues are everything, his policy concerns are about community, society and better services. To be fair, he knows the importance of fiscal discipline, and I personally enjoyed his derision of his left-wing colleagues the most in this book. But on foreign policy and security he’s a non-starter; Bush is a greater menace to Australians then terrorists, people that join the defence forces are dismissed as ‘meatheads’ with attitude problems. There has been a general consensus that ‘Australia dodged a bullet’ when Latham missed out on being Prime Minister; after reading these diaries I agree with this more then ever.

Since the diaries were released, Latham has come in for intense ridicule from the media and his political enemies, which is to say, nearly everyone in Australian public life. This is not surprising; Latham has tipped a bucket of manure over nearly everyone. His predecessor and successor as ALP leader, Kim Beazley, comes out worse, and to be honest Latham does raise some good questions about him. The media come off just as bad. For example, Deborah Snow is depicted as ‘The Abominable Snow woman’ (Latham has a bad habit of nicknaming everyone) mostly for this feature. Reading about the intensity of the coverage he faces, I found it possible to feel sympathy for Latham, who is mostly worried about protecting his family. And Australian journalists certainly do deserve a bucketing.

Despite the ridicule Latham has received in turn, some of it deserved, the book is selling like hot cakes. And deservedly so, because Latham’s style is entertaining. It is certainly revealing enough about the chronic dysfunction in the Australian Labor Party, and Latham himself is pessimistic about it. There are the usual warts one must expect of a polemic volume that is a self-justifying political figure. With that health warning in mind, for serious students of Australian politics, or social-democratic parties, or political junkies of any sort, this book is a fine read.

9 comments to The revenge of Mark Latham

  • I was wondering when Latho would turn up on these pages…a few thoughts.

    I baulk at the assertion that Latham was anything more than a mediocre intellectual force. I’ve read his book “Civilising Global Capital”. Absolutely nothing new said there, and I went away wondering precisely what the man actually stood for. On one hand, he talks about weaning Australians off the welfare state. On the other, he’s wheeling out the old Labor Party welfare safety net schtick.

    Observing Latham’s demise, and the publicity rounds he’s been on to support his diary sales, it’s hard for me not to be cynical about the man’s devotion to his family. I’m sure he loves his kids and his wife. But I think he’s using them to justify his position and not come off like the loser he was. It’s his way of saying “sure, you all beat me but I actually won cos look what I’ve got now, nyah nyah nee nyah nyah!” His complete lack of repentence is highly revealing. He says that the political system is awful, immoral, inhuman, ugly. And yet I haven’t seen him address the fact that he was a key figure in it – playing the game at the highest levels until very recently. If he turned around and said “yes, I was a willing part of the system that I’ve come to despise; yes, I was a willing part of the system which forces you to compromise your morals (or be amoral) to get ahead and I – and I alone – chose to get ahead; yes, I was a willing part of the system and I played its game and I drove the machine forward and because if this I am partially responsible for its hideousness due to my role in its operation. For all of this, I carry a great deal of regret.” Latham – to the best of my knowledge – has said nothing remotely close to this. On the contrary, he’s busily running around blaming everyone else for his predicament.

    I can’t admire a man like that, and I’m deeply cynical about anything he has to say. The whole pantomime strikes me as a classic case of sour grapes.

  • ADE

    Mark Latham… what happens to you when you wake up and realise you’ve been sold a lemon.

    Labour loves the proletariate, loves the poor (hey they’re smelly – but blame America), loves whales, wants ‘marriage’ with gay whales…

    then he lost his religion.

    Anti-Ayathollah of the left, here he comes…

    Enjoy, if it wasn’t so deja vu!


  • Latham could have had it all post the 2004 defeat. If he had have just STFU, he would have enjoyed iconic status in some circles forever and ever, amen – admission to the hallowed and regularly worshipped ranks of the Labor martyrs has its advantages. His career would have been assured. Ambassadorships, consultancy positions, the works. But no, he had to get all catty. More fool him.

  • The media people in Australia are overwhelmingly left leaning and/or Labor supporters and they did a great deal to boost Latham as the leader who would liberate us from the dreaded John “Thatcher” Howard. Now they are playing up the 10% of the book that is vulnerable to criticism in order to distract attention from the best parts of the book which expose them to ridicule.

  • nick

    When I was a student, from 1994 to 1999, I tolerated the Labor Party. I disagreed with all they stood for, but was happy to tolerate the largesse that came in my general direction, as a student. I was still disillusioned with the greater largesse that flowed to single mothers and various ethnic groups. Mark Latham benefited far more than I did, and is far less grateful. I look forward to his absence from the public stage. I also hope that he has made Labor unelectable in 2007. If he has passed his torch to Ms Gillard, making her attractive but electoral poison, so much the better. Good riddance to bad rubbish, or as my Irish Mum would say, I hope he gets shot with balls of his own shit.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Latham reminds me of Mr Blair – just another social democrat talking about “reform” of the Welfare State, whilst (in practice) supporting shoving more money down the drain.

    Of course Mr Latham has a more lower class manner than (leading Public School and Oxford University educated) Mr Blair, and a tendancy to commit acts of violence (whereas Mr Blair gets other people to commit acts of violence on his behalf), but they are basically the same.

    Apart from (of course) the Australians having the good sense to reject Mr Latham.

  • Mark Mason

    I have read the Latham Diaries and I think it is a great read, I have also read from the suburbs.

    I liked Latham as the leader of the ALP and to be honest he is the only ALP leader since they have been in opposition that has sparked any interest with me, he summed up all of my thoughts and I gather the majority of Australians about big Kym who is a weak and boring politician.

    I think his book gives a real insight into what is wrong with politics in general and more importantly the ALP, as he explains in his book the Old Guard and the different Factions control everything and this will be the case for some time, which prevents any freethinking young people from making a much needed difference.

    I hope Latham keeps writing as I find him extremely thought provoking, and comical. I think it’s a great shame for the Australian political scene to lose somebody the calibre of Mark Latham.

  • Peter Ashton

    I have always voted labour because I believed in their concept of social justice but after reading the book, I have come to realise that it’s not the party of old. Beazley is just an institutionalized slug who is supported by a bunch of snouts in the public trough. Mark Lathams summing up of his character is reflected in what he says and does in public. Australia needs a new political party with people like Latham to rid Australia of the political malaise it is trapped in.

  • Schermann

    Not withstanding, I like the Labour Party just as it is. Howard’s greatest asset by far…

    As an indirect victim of Col Parke’s Propaganda regime of hate in the 80’s, I know Latham as the ‘ass’ in Keating’s “ass end of the world” comment on Australia.

    Just as “L-A-W law” fizzed amongst the laudations of the rank and file cronies of that time. The Puppa Doc return to the ideals of ‘Paul Gough Latham’ brought nothing new but all the crap that Australia had chose to ditch once and for all.

    We all needed a good laugh after Paul Keating’s hate regime and the Labour pundits did not disappoint. No, I talking about wheezily Beazley. That fat carping wind bag that has nothing good to say about anything.

    Keep up the good work Kim until New Labour comes in in about 30 years time, maybe.

    I haven’t got the Latham diaries yet as I am waiting for it to be posted on the net “for free”. What give ‘that bastard’ any of my money, he’ll have to break my arm first.