Spotlight renders even soft things sharp. The faces of primary-school children can cast dark shadows.
It was mid-June and what could have been a cheerless night, but we were at the Melbourne Concert Hall watching children from the schools of the western suburbs perform. There were dances and clowns and singing and mini-orchestras. We parents pretended not to cry, not to be moved by youth and hope and our own role in making the future.
Then a primary-school choir from Altona took the stage, and their act dried our tears and wiped our smiles. The children were dressed in black and white. They didn’t smile. They sang that anthem of the ignored, “What About Me?” They sang with conviction. They belted it out.
What about me? It isn’t fair
I’ve had enough, now I want my share,
Can’t you see, I wanna live
But you just take more
You just take more
You just take more than you give
What about me? …
What about me? …
What about me? …
They placed their hands over their hearts as they sang the last three lines. The music stopped. The spotlight dimmed.
“I’ve always hated that song,” said one of the middle-class mums at the interval. Our school’s children had sung the entirely unthreatening “Turn the Lights On”. They had been acceptably optimistic.
Once the western suburbs meant disadvantage. That is one of the reasons why the Westside Concert is held – to build self-esteem and cultural capital. But things have changed in the inner west. Most of the children on stage, including my own, were from the arc of comfort within sight of the city towers. The Altona kids were an exception. Altona is an industrial suburb on the frayed edges of the city. It plots its history through the industries established there – petrochemical plants, salt works – and the slow, slow stretch of basic services from the centre to the fringe. So close to the winter solstice and the turning point of the year, and within months of the federal election, the kids from Altona had put us on notice. The fringe is no longer content to serve the centre. In politics, the fringe obligates and defines us all.
This is an essay about the alternative prime minister, Mark Latham. It is not biography, although with this politician more than most the life story is part of the political. There will be plenty of Latham biographies. Some of them will have been published before you read this. I am more interested in what the Latham phenomenon means than in the man himself, although the two things are inevitably linked. Personality is about values, and values are, or should be, about policy. Certainly with Latham they are. He is a conviction politician. Even his political opponents acknowledge this, and the most superficial examination of his life and his books confirms it. He is ambitious, but not an opportunist. His passion makes him frightening, as well as exciting.
Newspaper clippings from his first forays into public life have him describing himself as a “club buster”. More recently, and more acceptably, he has said that Labor needs to define itself as an anti-establishment party, “Australia’s natural party of outsiders”. He has always believed, and wanted others to believe, that politics has the power to change lives, in particular the lives of children like those from the Altona primary schools.
I think it is clear that if Labor gains power there will be fundamental changes to Australia – the biggest Latham can manage. They will include changes to our understanding of what it is to be poor and what it is to be privileged, and of what equality might entail.
Mark Latham has written that all of us need to embrace multiple identities. We are members of families, members of ethnic groups, supporters of our sporting teams, and also Australians. Our allegiances shift, contract and expand. I know what he means. When I turn my mind to national politics, I see it from at least two perspectives. On the one hand, I am on the inside. I am a journalist and a writer. I interview politicians. Things I have written might even have been influential, in a tiny way. I number among my friends some of the powerful. In this role I am engaged with, even fascinated by, the spectator sport of politics.
At the same time I am a parent. I stand in the schoolyard with other parents, and we talk. I cannot avoid the alienation, the disconnection and the cynicism of those around me. I feel some of it myself. Most people don’t like politics. Perhaps this is why it has to be coated in faux scandal – to make it palatable, and to persuade us that the work of the Canberra press gallery is important and relevant. Then again, alienation from public life must in part be because it is reported in such an unappealing way – alternately boring and salacious.
On the night of the Westside Concert we parents were meant to be in the grip of election fever according to the commentators, many of whom were confidently predicting an August election. Resigned to the descent of the campaign might have been more accurate for most of us. When we are together, we parents don’t talk politics, or not in the sense of discussing policies or politicians. In another sense we talk about nothing else. We talk about classroom sizes, and child-care, and working and raising kids, and traffic flows through our suburbs, and the choice between private and public education. Mention the election or a politician, and the conversation tends to die. I think most of the parents no longer believe that politicians make a difference to the things that touch their lives. There seem to be no ideas, no narrative, to engage us or to harness the small practicalities of the schoolyard and the neighbourhood to some sense of national direction. I think Mark Latham might change this, if he can make himself heard, and this is one of the things I like about him. One thing links my identities. Always, I badly want politics to matter.
At a dinner party recently, I halted a political argument by reading aloud the first few pages of Latham’s most recent book, From the Suburbs. The silence afterwards lasted for minutes. It was both alarmed and impressed.
“There are more ideas there”, said one of the people present, “than I have heard in politics for years.”
The way politics is reported will surely be as big a barrier to Latham’s election as anything John Howard might or might not do. It is difficult, in Australia at present, to communicate an idea. Even when someone succeeds, ideas in politics are treated with suspicion. They are dangerous – indications that the present state of things may not be sustained. Those in the comfort zone, which includes most journalists and others in the political classes, will always resist true change, while those who are less secure will likely be more susceptible to the radical.
Mark Latham makes me nervous. In my writing and journalistic life, my friends and I are among those who have grown a carapace, multiple chips on the shoulder and habits of caution from being denigrated as “chattering classes” and the “elite”. During the Howard years this denigration has robbed us of some of our undoubted comfort, but we have had the ultimate consolation: the sense of our own righteousness. I think Mark Latham is unlikely to leave that sense intact.
His vision is materialistic, but not only materialistic. He says the big divisions in politics are no longer those of capital and labour, or even of income. Rather, they are cultural, and to do with power. There are insiders and outsiders. The insiders are people like me, and probably the majority of readers of this essay. We are the information-rich, those adept in navigating the information age, and who therefore feel relatively secure in a fast-changing world. Latham includes in this class both the left-wing “chattering classes” derided during the Howard years, and also the elites of the right – newspaper commentators, those elevated to the key cultural posts of the nation and the leaders of big business.
The outsiders, on the other hand, are those who do not feel confident or knowledgeable about anything other than the immediate things of their lives – services, schools, the micro-changes of politics. The outsiders live on the fringes of cities, and in the regions. If the insiders, in the words of the Altona choir, “take more than they give”, it is not in money, or not only in money. It is in their hoarding of political and cultural power.
Latham has written:
I would argue that the political spectrum is best understood as a struggle between insiders and outsiders – the abstract values of the powerful centre, versus the pragmatic beliefs of those who feel disenfranchised by social change. This is a different framework to class-based politics. Rather than drawing their identity from the economic system, people see their place in society as a reflection of their access to information and public influence. The insiders/outsiders divide has become a reliable guide to electoral behaviour.
The divide explains the rise of Pauline Hanson, Latham says. It explains why Australians voted down a republic with a politician-appointed president, even though most wanted an Australian head of state. It explains the failure of Paul Keating, and the success of John Howard. If Latham succeeds, it will explain his victory.
Mark Latham’s ideas for change are not chiefly about the economy. He has described the reforms introduced by Hawke and Keating – opening the Australian economy to the world, floating the dollar – as Part One of a program that has now stalled. Part Two should be to do with society itself. He has written, in contradiction of Mrs Thatcher’s famous pronouncement, that “there is such a thing as society.” Latham’s ideas concern how we relate to each other, our mutual obligations and our values. He sees himself as the leader of Part Two.
Latham’s roots lie not in the Hawke and Keating years but in an earlier phase of Australian Labor Party history. In both a literal and a broader sense, he is Gough Whitlam’s heir – the successor to Whitlam’s seat of Werriwa in Sydney’s outer west and the first political leader since Whitlam to talk mainly about society, rather than economics. Latham spent his early years of adulthood deeply engaged both with Gough Whitlam the man and with the legacy of the Whitlam government. He does not share the conventional view of Whitlam as flawed visionary who tried to do too much too soon and was brought down by poor economic management.
On the day of the Westside Concert, I read an interview with the author Shirley Hazzard, who had just won the Miles Franklin Award for her novel The Great Fire. The article described her as “coiffed, frail, a speaker in sculpted, thoughtful sentences”. Hazzard still wrote on a typewriter. She represented a genteel past, and also the time when a literary life, an intellectual life, was just beginning to be a possibility in Australia – although Hazzard, like so many others, felt she had to leave. Hazzard commented on modern times:
Language is being diminished. Politicians are out of touch. We are living in a world that wants attestable things, when the inattestable things are what has made life more liveable. The poetic side of life. Introspection. Mysterious things. Humility.
I think it is manifest that Hazzard’s view is one with which Mark Latham would be radically out of sympathy. I suspect Hazzard is right, and we live in an age of attestable things – of analytical thought, but not abstract thought. Of outsider thinking, rather than the examined life of the insiders. If Latham becomes prime minister, that thinking will become even more dominant in Australia. It will come into its own politically.
I am with Hazzard on the inattestable things. Yet at the same time, I can sniff the cold wind of change and it excites me. Reading about Hazzard’s typewriter, I roll my eyes. Part of me wants to pummel her sculpted sentences. I believe that people like me need a change, a shock and a challenge. And we know, don’t we, after the events of the last few years, that we are out of touch? That somehow our country has slipped beyond our understanding and our influence?
Even if Latham fails, the country will still be altered. Part of this is “generational change”, but I think that phrase is being used too glibly, without thought for what it means. A change of generations is not only about age, but also about life experience – the times we have lived through.
Mark Latham is forty-three years old, a year younger than me. We are part of the tag end of the baby-boomer generation – almost not baby boomers at all, yet not young enough to be part of Generation X. Like me, Latham was a teenager when Gough Whitlam was dismissed. He is too young to have been part of the great social upheavals of the ’60s, too young to have been called up or at risk of call-up for Vietnam, too young to have been a hippie. Yet he and I are old enough to have been formed by the aftermath of these events and social changes, both good and bad. I think people our age combine a sense of pragmatism, edging into disappointment, with a sense of big possibility. We are old enough to know that economics was not always the only thing in political life – that once society mattered too. That once there were big ideas.
If Latham ascends to power, then it will be signal of succession to our generation. We will be in our prime. It will be our turn to run the place, and I am sure things will be different.
“What’s his story?” I asked Michael Byrne, one of Latham’s oldest friends. I wanted to know how Latham saw himself – what narratives he had to give his life meaning. What sense he had of a world beyond the pragmatic – how he understood the nature of things. Byrne is a devout Catholic of the socially reforming kind. He and Latham used to eat together at an Indian restaurant in Liverpool. Latham would always take the corner seat, next to the window, so he could watch “his voters” walking by.
Once Byrne and Latham were knocking a golf ball around on a course at the edge of the city. It was a blokey friendship. They talked politics endlessly, but rarely delved into personal matters. On this occasion there was greater intimacy. Byrne talked a bit about Jesus Christ. Latham was interested, but not because of any spiritual inclination. Rather he was interested in the politics. How had Christ managed to found a movement that survived so long after his death? How had the ideas been communicated? Byrne suggested that divinity might have had something to do with it. He knew as he said the words that Latham would not only disagree, but would not really understand the concept.
Michael Byrne suggested to me that the Labor Party was Latham’s “story”, but I don’t think that can be true. Latham has been fighting the party for most of his life. One of the notable things about him is that his success has been achieved largely in spite of the Labor Party machine, and without significant support from any of its factions. His support base has been built from outside the party. Unlike most of the leaders who preceded him, he owes very few favours.
Would we have poetry, I asked Michael Byrne? Would Latham do that thing that leaders do – that Keating had done – spin us a yarn, tell us a story, tell us what it all means, and where we might be going?
The answer is no. Mark Latham’s vision is a series of small pictures, rather than the big picture of Paul Keating.
“You won’t get poetry from him,” Byrne replied. “But he’s the kind of man who’ll keep a poet around him.”
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY