The Latham Diaries
When released a few months ago, the controversial Latham Diaries were hot property. With an explosive launch there were loud cries of objection from high quarters and then all the noise from Canberra stopped. Very suddenly.
Mark Latham was the former leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) who almost single-handedly turned the electoral fortunes of the ALP around, developing innovative and socially progressive policies for a modern social democratic party. He nearly became Prime Minister, but ultimately lost his first election as Opposition Leader. After ongoing health issues, Latham resigned and two-time election loser Kim Beazley resumed leadership of the ALP.
Latham’s Diaries are a chronicle of the period from when he first entered the Commonwealth Parliament as the member for Werriwa, through to him becoming ALP leader and contesting a federal election, and then his subsequent resignation. Latham details his fight against the ‘machine men’ within the ALP who executed ‘machine politics’ – poll driven policies designed only to tell the electorate what they want to hear. It is a very cynical approach, and as Latham laments, completely devoid of principle. Winning government and power become the sole agenda for Labor’s ‘machine politicians’ rather than reducing poverty and improving the nation. Latham never envisioned this aspect of being a Labor politician. He always assumed principles would come first in the greatest of Labor traditions.
Latham pulls few punches in this explosively frank critique of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and its entrenched culture of factionalism and excessive union influence. Latham is particularly critical of Kim Beazley, the current leader and the man who has lost two elections for Labor. Latham provides day-by-day accounts of the corrosive culture that Beazley actively fostered; that of timidity and indecisiveness. Kevin Rudd is also shown in poor light as a media slut desperate for status and prepared to do anything to attain power. In fact almost everyone in the Labor party and the media ‘establishment’ come under attack.
Much of the criticism of his fellow MP’s appears justified. There are numerous accounts of back-stabbing, deliberate leaking and muck-raking from within the Labor Party. Indeed, Latham considered that his greatest enemies were not the Tories on the other side of the parliamentary chamber but the power-hungry members within his own ranks. How could the Labor Party win government and lead the nation when it cannot even lead itself?
Latham tried to inject the party with a sense of loyalty as well as modern and innovative social and economic policies. Yet the struggle against his ‘comrades’ seemed almost too much at times. The pressures of a hostile and vengeful ex-wife, voyeuristic print media, antagonistic ‘factional heavyweights’ and his health concerns eventually became too much for him.
The reader reads first hand about the pressures that Latham experienced, initially as a backbencher, then Shadow Minister, then Opposition Leader. We read of the happiness and joy he experienced as he became a father, and the guilt that he felt for being away from his family for so long. What an irony it was, that he was fighting for government policies to provide better parenting and male role models for boys, while at the same time he was unable to be an active father for his two sons.
Latham confronts us with some stark conclusions. His shares his disappointment at the country Australia has become; devoid of ‘social capital’ at the expense of rampant materialism and selfishness. Particularly in the introduction and conclusion, we are invited to open our eyes to what contemporary Australian society has become. The picture Latham paints is only too real.
But the greatest sadness is felt when he sums up his time within the ALP, and reflects on what the old radical workers’ party has become. Latham concludes that organised politics in 2005 is a waste of time if one wishes to change Australian society. And in any case, he argues, there is no point because people are just too selfish to care about helping the poor and welfare-dependant. As long as interest rates remain low the mortgaged masses will be happy, he laments.
Just prior to the launch of the Latham Diaries, Mr. Latham performed what I would regard as the world’s worst ever “dummy spit”. No-one was spared as he repeatedly told the nation of how disillusioned he had become. His interview on ABC Radio 3LO with John Faine on 20 September was ‘a shocker’, as Latham himself might say. At the time, I was verydisappointed in Latham, thinking that he had become the petty, juvenile and aggressive loser than many had portrayed him as.
But after reading his book, my opinion of him is much restored.
Latham is a man who is not eloquent in speech, nor does he hesitate to tell it how it is. After all, it was Latham who publicly described President George W. Bush in parliament as “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory” and said that John Howard and George W. Bush were part of a “congo line of suckholes”. Many of us were thinking it, but who amongst us could phrase it like that?
We see that Latham is an educated and honest man, who is well-read on social matters and wanted to bring a fresh and innovative approach to federal politics; breaking the monotony of “machine politics”. He recognised that he made mistakes and said some stupid things during his time in Canberra. But he also made some terrific contributions to the nation, perhaps the most famous being his success in ending the excessive generosity of the parliamentary superannuation scheme from Opposition.
What we are left with is the portrait of an essentially good man who wanted to make our nation stronger, both economically and socially.
For anyone who cares about the future of Australia, I strongly encourage them to read this enlightening book. It makes one think far more deeply about what Australia has become and where we may be headed. One thing is for sure; many years will pass before such an accurate behind-the-scenes book is again published.
Latham, M. (2005) The Latham Diaries. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0522852157