QUARTERLY ESSAY 15 Latham's World



John Button

During the recent election campaign, journalists kept describing Mark Latham as “a work in progress”. I think they meant progress towards one day being prime minister. The Coalition had a similar line with a different spin. At present he was not a person “fit to hold office”, or in other words, “like us”.

Mark Latham has been a very difficult figure for conservative politicians and desultory journalists to have to confront. He is different. As Margaret Simons points out, he is a conviction politician, he understands how to use plain language and is “one of very few thinkers to have achieved political leadership”. In Canberra this is like letting a bear loose in a holiday camp.

What to do in this dangerous situation? The Coalition reaction was that the intruder had to be destroyed by whatever means possible. After the election it still is. Conservative columnists keep telling us that Latham might be another John Hewson and that the ALP is ill advised to keep him as leader.

The ALP reacted with mixed feelings, applauding Latham’s campaign performance, but uncertain about the strategy. Out of the comfort zone there’s a tendency to wonder where you’re going.

Some in the Canberra press gallery, having become accustomed to recycling ministerial press releases as “think pieces” and commentaries, found Latham’s style and ideas hard to handle. It’s not too difficult to imagine them thinking, this guy is different, there must be something seriously wrong with him. Perhaps it’s best to say he’s a work in progress.

Second-order columnists like the Australian’s Glen Milne coped by recycling gossip. Paul Kelly pondered on the meaning of it all, and strongly supported Latham’s tax and welfare package, which just happened to have had its origins in a seminar jointly sponsored by the Australian and The Melbourne Institute. Michelle Grattan managed to persuade herself and Fairfax that it was only a matter of time before Latham imploded. Hence the Age headline “Latham blows up” the morning after he gave a sharp answer to Laurie Oakes on the Sunday program.

I’m not suggesting that any of this was deliberately unfair to Latham. Rather that a lot of the press gallery seemed tired and lazy. By contrast Latham’s World is an essay of quality and an intriguing piece of diligent investigative journalism. Margaret Simons didn’t get to meet the man himself, so her story had to be constructed the hard way, from circumstantial evidence, pictures provided by others and her own analysis of this material.

Simons did what might have been expected. She investigated the gossip and allegations about Latham’s past and reached her own judgement about these matters. She weighed up all the evidence she could assemble about her subject’s character and personality. She observed him on television and, more importantly, at a community forum. And then she examined his ideas.

Sadly, intellectual rigour of this kind is not part of the regular practice or culture of contemporary Australian political journalism. That the essay was written in difficult circumstances with the topic a constantly moveable feast is an encouraging sign that professionalism still exists, albeit out of the mainstream.

Of Latham’s character and personality the best side is the challenge which comes from his intellect and commitment, the flashes of humour, the use of straightforward language, the empathy and humility displayed at his community forums. There’s another side, much of it best illustrated by past rather than contemporary events. Simons observes, for example, that in his time at Liverpool Council he was “rude”, even “cruel” to his predecessors. Latham admits this, blaming stress and political hurly-burly. More ongoing is his narcissism and controlling personality, which no doubt make it difficult for colleagues. But there are always crosses to bear. As the journalist Adrian McGregor perceptively observed when Kim Beazley became leader in 1996, “Kim Beazley is the first Labor leader since Chifley without a serious personality disorder.” A political party often gets the leaders it deserves.

Leadership is rare and obvious when it is around. A controlling personality is relatively common and should be discouraged. It is fair to ask whether it has worked for Latham. He has only been leader for ten hectic months and became leader with cross-factional support. He seems to have squandered some of the initial goodwill which arose from his good parliamentary performance. His election campaign was impressive in parts, but if he controlled the agenda for that, he clearly got some of it wrong. There was plenty of tactics and not much strategy. And nobody seems to have been controlling with a steady hand the caucus debacle since the election. So without overdoing it he has to get back on top of all that internal party stuff. It will take time and patience. His “tutor” Gough Whitlam had to put up with it for years.

Margaret Simons suggests that Latham tends to divide ideas and policies into two sections; the first is about the economy, the second about society (mutual obligations and values). The Hawke-Keating governments took care of the first section; Latham developed policies and attitudes to accommodate the second. Eight years have passed by since the end of the Hawke-Keating era. For most of that time there has been nothing by way of a robust critique from the ALP of the Coalition’s economic management.

Partly this was because the parliamentary party was unsure whether it accepted the re-structuring of the ’80s and the opening of the economy or not. The Coalition had no such hesitation. Latham and the party must now understand that the ladder of opportunity has to rest on a firm footing if the voters are going to put their feet on the bottom rungs. It surprises me that Latham seems to have thought otherwise or ignored this unpleasant reality.

This seems a touch Whitlamesque.

There are two other observations which emerge from this essay. First, it is pretty clear that Latham doesn’t suffer fools gladly. This is a pity because he has a few of them in his new shadow cabinet. In the past he’s had a few words about parliamentary colleagues which some have condemned but which to me seemed remarkable for their political astuteness.

Latham is also said to be a hater, which is seen to be an uncharitable characteristic. A couple of years ago Latham even said that he hated the Coalition, a remark which led Tony Abbott to pompously admonish Latham in the parliament. Hatred, Abbott said, was not an appropriate emotion for a member of the House of Representatives. This must depend on who and what one hates and why. Is it so unreasonable to hate certain values and hate the perpetrators of values totally repugnant to one’s own? Indeed it is arguable that the ALP Opposition before Latham took over as leader was too polite and pussy-footed with the Howard government because it lacked a clear sense of philosophical difference. This suited the Tony Abbotts of this world fine.

Latham’s World provides a lucid and interesting account of his background and ideas, of paradigms of insiders and outsiders, Tourists and Residents.

Some of this came out during the election campaign, particularly the How green was my valley stuff. With Latham’s passion for ideas this is hopefully an evolving story which will broaden with time. There are, for example, a whole lot of interesting community values out there in the bush to which the ALP ought to be giving some thought.

What is perhaps missing from this essay is that part of Latham’s world known as the ALP, of which he is a member and the leader. This is understandable. In a short time it would have been impossible and unwise to step into this minefield. Latham believes that politics has the power to change people’s lives. But to do this you need a political party which is in touch with the community and which has a parliamentary membership representative of a wide range of backgrounds and experience. This is not so. The factional system values mediocrity above ability, and loyalty (to the faction) above life experience. It makes for an inward-looking rather than an outward-looking party. There is plenty of evidence that the public recognises this, but the factional leaders don’t want to know about it. Latham by contrast reaches out to the community with his forums, a genuine innovation in contemporary politics. Perhaps he should start by teaching some of his less radical and less imaginative colleagues how to do it.


John Button was Leader of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments in the Senate from 1983 until his retirement from politics in 1993. Over the same period he was Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce. He is the author of Flying the Kite, On the Loose, As It Happened and Quarterly Essay 6, Beyond Belief: What Future for Labor?


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 15, Latham's World. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 16, Breach of Trust.


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