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QUARTERLY ESSAY 49 Not Dead Yet

 

Correspondence

Andrew Charlton

I must admit to being a longstanding admirer of Mark Latham. Writing this now feels vaguely like a confession, but there was a time when I followed his career with great interest. Well before he became a political hard man, Latham was something of a policy wonk. As a young parliamentarian he wrote three books, a dozen essays and countless speeches. I was drawn to Latham because I found something in his writing I had never seen before: a smart young politician wrestling with the big questions.

Latham arrived in Canberra in 1994, during the fifth term of Australia’s longest serving federal Labor government. Just two years later the party suffered its worst election loss in fifty years. For Latham, then still a freshman MP, the 1996 defeat was a political defibrillation. More than others, he understood its significance. Voters hadn’t just changed their mind; they had changed their values. In the mid-1990s Australians had more money, more security and more education than ever before. Labor’s base, the old working class, was developing into a new middle class: aspiring, consuming and wanting to choose what was best for themselves and their families. These voters had outgrown the crude collectivism of Labor’s past. Unless Labor changed with them, it might never govern again except as an occasional stopgap between long-serving conservative administrations.

A new generation of progressive thinkers – including Latham, Tanner, Shorten and Rudd – set to work on the threshold question facing the modern Labor Party: what should the left stand for after the triumph of the market economy?

Latham threw himself at this question. He opened his first book, Civilising Global Capital, published in 1998, with a call to action that hit me between the eyes: 

Labor faces a task of fundamental reconstruction: returning its thinking to first principles … The economic restructuring of the 1980s in Australia has produced social and political restructuring from which the ALP must devise a new political framework … Labor has no way back to the past … [we] must rely on the politics of transition – new circumstance, new thinking, new policies. 

Civilising Global Capital is, to my knowledge, the most ambitious book ever written by a sitting Australian politician. Latham spends most of the book playing Jenga with the Labor policy platform. In each chapter he withdraws, examines and then discards another axiom from the party’s intellectual foundations. His point was that Labor’s traditional policies – welfare state, regulation and industry policy – were losing their potency. Many modern social challenges – including indigenous disadvantage, family breakdown, mental health and social exclusion – cannot be solved with welfare cheques. And in a competitive global economy, job security can no longer be guaranteed by government protection. Latham urged the Labor Party to move away from “big government” policy solutions, declaring that “social democracy needs to give closer consideration to the relations between citizens rather than simply working from an assumption that all social issues can be resolved in the state-to-citizen relationship.” 

Latham’s early writing is freighted with all the idiosyncrasies of an autodidact. The language is bloated and overwrought, as if the young man is struggling to wrestle complex argument into plain English. The prolificacy of his ideas often creates a sense of disorder. From chapter to chapter he traverses the ages and criss-crosses the political spectrum, weaving in concepts of Enlightenment philosophy, musing on Hegelian theory and weighing in on Tony Blair’s Third Way. But his pages appeal because they throb with urgency and passion, his ideas are original and his canvas is broad. 

In his second book, What Did You Learn Today?, Latham applies his thesis – that government service provision must adapt to social change – to education policy. As skills become more important in the workplace, “lifelong learning needs to become Australia’s national pastime” and education needs to extend beyond schools and universities into “everyday life: in homes, in workplaces, in clubs, in shopping centres, in libraries, in the places where people commonly come together.” Education is central to Latham’s concept of equality – one of the traditional left-wing values he wants to modernise. Latham favours what he calls “aspirational equality,” where divergent outcomes are tolerated so long as they are related to individual effort. Latham would later turn this idea into his famous “ladder of opportunity” analogy; the role of government, he would say, should be to provide equal access to the ladder, not to ensure that everyone ascends to the same height. 

The essays and speeches released in his 2003 book, From the Suburbs, see Latham hitting his stride as he draws his ideas together into something approaching a coherent whole. He focuses on reconciling left-wing values with an economy dominated by the market and a society dominated by individuals seeking self-determination. His solution is to recast government from “provider” to “facilitator.” Governments can create opportunities, but individuals have to take some responsibility for realising them. Latham sees no contradiction here with traditional Labor values of equality and collectivism. Rather he claims that his “responsibility agenda” keeps faith with traditional working-class values of pride, effort and thrift.

From the Suburbs was the zenith of Latham’s career as a Labor intellectual. Thereafter he began to transform himself from thought-leader to head-kicker as he ascended through the ranks of the parliamentary party. On the way up, his approach became steadily less thoughtful and more impulsive. He lost his academic idiom and adopted a crude, scatological vernacular. He called the prime minister an “arse-licker,” referred to George Bush as the “most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory,” and described his conservative opponents as “a conga-line of suckholes.” By the time he became Opposition leader, he was a wholly different politician from the young intellectual I had come to know through his writing. 

In the end Latham’s parliamentary career adhered to the rule that nothing is so detrimental to political longevity than early success. After the 2004 election loss, he embarked upon a decade-long sulk that would prove many of his detractors right. His memoir, The Latham Diaries, was a remarkably honest and revealing portrait of the dysfunctions of modern politics. But Latham’s compellingly candid critique – which should have sparked a national debate about the vagaries of media-driven personality politics – was lost in the wash of his own bitterness and vitriol. For years since, his columns in the Australian Financial Review have been venom-tipped darts, indiscriminately launched at his former colleagues.

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I mention this background because it is impossible to understand Latham’s recent contributions except as those of a man who is trying, intellectually and emotionally, to regain the promise of his younger self. 

With this essay, Latham returns to the world of ideas. We are treated to a glimpse of the old Latham: the thinker. His voice has changed in recent years. The writing is now much cleaner than in his early works, and free of the personal agendas that ruined the Diaries. Occasionally he slips into hyperbole (he calls Abbott a  “rat-snake”), but for the most part this is the work of a strong mind, now unencumbered by the constraints of ambition and sectional patronage. There aren’t enough of these minds in the ALP, and if Latham wants to return to this role, he should be welcomed back.

Many in the Labor Party now snigger at Latham, dismissing his regular public interjections as the fading gurgle of political failure. They should not be so smug. Latham tried – and perhaps is still trying – to rethink and refresh the post-Keating ALP. His fall from “promising intellectual” to “disillusioned has-been” is more than the sad story of one broken career; it is an allegory of Labor’s failure to produce leaders and ideas capable of re-establishing the party’s intellectual foundations in the post-Keating era.

Latham acknowledges he fell short of his mission: “We were tasked with revitalising the party’s agenda after federal Labor’s heavy defeat in 1996, but in large part, nearly two decades later, this goal remains unfulfilled.” Reading Quarterly Essay 49 reminded me that Labor’s next generation could do worse than pick up where the young Latham left off.

 

Andrew Charlton was senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd from 2008 to 2010. He received his doctorate in economics from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, and is the author of Quarterly Essay 44, Man-Made World: Choosing between Progress and Planet, Ozonomics and Fair Trade for All, co-written with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 49, Not Dead Yet. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 50, Unfinished Business.


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