Peter Brent

Mark Latham has many qualities, but as a political strategist he was and remains ordinary. His Quarterly Essay may or may not contain sound prescriptions for reform of the Labor Party and policy ideas (in particular, he has long been persuasive on the part played by norms and role models in economic and social deprivation), but on the politics Latham’s pen is decidedly impressionistic.

Romanticising the Hawke–Keating governments is almost de rigueur in contemporary political analysis, but Latham’s characterisation is more one-dimensional than most. And unreal to anyone who was following politics during that period – which, of course, would include him. 

Like many historians, Latham seems a willing captive of the prism of the present and the demands of the narrative. This makes for a rollicking story, but the lessons can be disastrous if actually implemented as strategy. His time as Opposition leader in 2004 was like that: sometimes it seemed as if emulating the key themes of Gough Whitlam’s 1972 victory – and getting commentators to see him in these terms – would push history to repeat itself.

It’s true that Keating was largely responsible for the increased economic literacy of the nation, in part via the press gallery. By the late 1980s it seemed everyone knew about the current account problem and the fact that the world didn’t owe us a living. But the 1980s economic reforms driven, as Latham would have it, by Keating’s own life experiences? Keating in the Labor tradition of “community engagement”?

In reality many of those prescriptions came from the bureaucracy and were fashionable in certain circles around the globe, which was why they came to be put in place in several countries. Importantly, most of the new agenda was supported by the federal Opposition of the day, who if anything complained it didn’t go far enough. Yes, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating possessed greater political courage than their successors, and then John Howard had more than his successors, but Hawke and Howard were also accused of timidity at times, of being overly influenced by opinion polls and focus groups. 

Latham greatly favours Keating over Hawke; we read of the “Keating legacy of micro-reform and productivity growth,” “Keating’s creation of a ‘miracle economy’” and repeated references to the “Keating settlement.” But “economic rationalists” much preferred Keating the treasurer – under Hawke – to Keating the prime minister, and his one election win in the top job, in 1993, was a blow against the kind of economic reform he (and Latham) now describe him as the architect of.

Hawke and Keating were successful politicians, so they would say one thing during an election campaign and then, after being re-elected, do another. Sometimes a Coalition policy they warned would be disastrous to the fabric of Australian society came to be implemented by them later. If there are lessons from that period in office, it’s that the ALP under Hawke won a highly winnable election and then didn’t look back. It never doubted it belonged in office. Like all governments, what it did in government bore little resemblance to what it promised in opposition.

Others may have fretted about what it meant to be “Labor,” but members of the Hawke and Keating governments were too busy pulling the levers of state. They were proudly different to – they reckoned they were easily better than – earlier Labor governments. Compare that with today’s politicians and commentators – like Latham – who obsess about past glories. But after it was all over in 1996, it became apparent that a hollowing-out of the party, particularly at membership level, had also been taking place.

Some of Latham’s advice is wishful thinking at best and simple fiction at worst. “When financial issues are dealt with at arm’s length, it creates room in the daily media cycle for Labor to emphasise its other progressive reforms, such as social initiatives and action on climate change.” That must have tripped easily off the keyboard.

Or: “Labor would be better served by initiating a mature, factual debate about the limits of economic policy. It needs to explain to the electorate how the role of government has fundamentally changed.” I think I read that scene in the book Primary Colors.

Latham advocates a closer identification with the politics of climate change, because, it seems, in several decades history will pronounce the party correct. But, as with Labor’s opposition to the Vietnam War and its awful drubbing at the 1966 election, eventually ending up on the right side of history does you a fat lot of good today.

Again in line with most commentators, Latham conflates a large and active party membership with electoral success. But if the two have a relationship, it seems, from the historical record, to be inverse. Back in the first half of last century, when membership was at its highest, federal election wins were scarce. At state level the party’s greatest collective success – including in some states the biggest wins or longest periods in office – came only recently, five to fifteen years ago, when membership was already on a downward spiral. And (sorry to bring them up again) if anyone is responsible for the decline in membership, it’s the sainted Hawke and Keating, whose policies members found so offensive. Had they listened to members more, they probably wouldn’t have lasted so long in office. (This is the problem with any plan to empower the membership.) 

Latham writes of the “core delusion of 21st-century democracy, that political parties can fragment and hollow out, yet still win the confidence of the people.” Now he’s getting somewhere, but it applies as much to the Liberals as to Labor, and (to varying degrees) to their counterparts overseas.

The thing we call “democracy” seems to have evolved this way in countries like ours. The electorate is bypassed in a technocratic consensus, with certain policies – on immigration and deregulation – implemented regardless of who is in power. With hindsight many or most voters end up agreeing it was good for them after all, but it’s not surprising that the number of people loyal to either side of politics continues to decline. The product of this could be seen a decade ago, when the Liberal and National parties were recording record-low primary votes at state elections. Now the ALP is, and the records are even lower. 

Like the best political storytellers, Latham doesn’t believe in the electoral cycle, but it is real and is the reason state Labor governments have been crashing over the last five years. 

One day Australia’s two-party system might break. If it happened today, the ALP would shatter, but if it happens in five or ten years’ time, it might be the conservative parties. Increasing party membership won’t stop that.


Peter Brent has a PhD in political science and has been writing about politics since 2001 on his blog Mumble, which is now hosted by the Australian.


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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