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The Latham Moment

Aug 5, 2019 • 17m14s

Just on 15 years ago, almost half the country voted for Mark Latham. Now, the former Labor leader is a One Nation representative who could play a significant role in the new right.

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The Latham Moment

50 • Aug 5, 2019

The Latham Moment

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Just on 15 years ago, almost half the country voted for Mark Latham to be prime minister. Now, the former Labor leader is a One Nation representative in the NSW parliament. Sean Kelly on Latham’s politics and character, and the role he could play in the new right.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Alright Sean. So you spoke to Mark Latham recently in your reporting for The Monthly. What is he like to talk to now?

SEAN:

Ah, he was he was very forthcoming. He was very personable. He was very willing to engage.

ELIZABETH:

Sean Kelly is a journalist and former advisor to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He wrote about Mark Latham for the latest issue of The Monthly.

SEAN:

And I think in particular when it came to personal questions I had the feeling - and of course I could be wrong - that he enjoyed the fact that somebody was trying to understand the twists and turns his career has taken, and was trying to understand who he was as a person. Now, political matters, policy matters, I think he was a little bit more cagey but it was an interesting conversation.

ELIZABETH:

And what was Mark Latham like before he entered parliament the first time in 1994?

[Music starts]

SEAN:

He grew up in the Green Valley public housing estate in western Sydney. He was very firmly working class and always very proud of his working class upbringing. Though some have certainly described that as a chip on his shoulder at times. He then went to a selective high school. And I think there was a bit of a sense of destiny around him. There was a bit of a sense in his family that Mark Latham was the special kid. In year 12, he joined the Labor Party and I think anything else would have seemed a bit absurd at that point.

Archival tape — Mark Latham:

"I remember that first night I joined the Labor Party. It was January 1979, one of those beautiful balmy Sydney nights – and you sort of hope they last forever…”

SEAN:

He went to work for Gough Whitlam straight out of university Whitlam was was a former prime minister at that point, he worked for Whitlam for five years. They became very, very close. He helped Whitlam write his memoirs. He went to live with Gough and Margaret Whitlam in Paris for a few months and after working for Whitlam he was elected to local council. He worked for Bob Carr when he was NSW Labor leader and then Latham became mayor of Liverpool. And not that long after that, he entered federal parliament in Gough Whitlam's old seat and just two years later he was a shadow minister.

Archival tape — Mark Latham:

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into but I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be part of it because Labor really is the party of belief and conviction, a better society for all Australians.”

SEAN:

So there was this very rapid rise through politics.

ELIZABETH:

A golden run for a Labor politician if there ever was one…

SEAN:

Absolutely.

[Music ends]

SEAN:

But there is an anti-authoritarian trait to Latham, he wants to make something of himself. He doesn't want to do what he's told and in fact after becoming a shadow minister, after the 1998 election, he does something which very few young shadow ministers do, which is resign. He resigns from the front-bench he says “I've had enough of this”. Basically he is sick of being told what to do and being told to keep his voice down. That tendency in Latham to break out of a straitjacket, to want desperately to return to a kind of unbowed version of himself, recurs throughout his career.

ELIZABETH:

And what can we say about Mark Latham’s political beliefs at this time, in the late 90s?

SEAN:

One of the things about Mark Latham is that he has, throughout his career, written an enormous amount. I was thinking this morning he is probably the public political figure in Australia who has put the most on the public record. I'm not sure that anybody's career and anybody's beliefs throughout their life have been so well documented as Mark Latham's. He's been a regular columnist for about 30 years, in the middle of that period he was the leader of the Australian Labor Party.

In 1998 he wrote a book, a dense book, a book that I think very few people ended up finishing reading called Civilising Global Capital and it was immensely important to his rise within the Labor Party, because it established him as a political thinker, whether or not the Labor Party actually embraced his ideas. And in that book he argued very strongly and at length against a focus on what he then called 'segment of life characteristics'. Or what we’d call today ‘identity politics’. He is very strongly against the rise of left wing totemic symbolic issues in general. He believed that Labor lost the plot around 1993 when it began focussing on what he believed were overly symbolic left wing issues.

Annabel Crabb in a book she wrote describes a dinner in which Mark Latham gets into this massive flaming argument with Anthony Albanese, who of course now leads the Labor Party, and they're talking about the politics of asylum seekers. And Mark Latham says "asylum seekers aren't some innocents who need our help. They're criminals". He wrote columns criticising feminism, criticising the focus on gay rights, and these are all themes to which Latham continues to return today.

ELIZABETH:

And yet 2003 he becomes leader of the Labor Party. What were the promises that he puts forward when he gets into office?

SEAN:

So in 2003 this man who ostensibly hates left wing symbolic issues, who ostensibly hates identity politics, becomes leader of the Labor Party and within days he has walked away from those beliefs.

Archival tape — Mark Latham:

Now some people today of course will be asking, `who is Mark Latham and what does he stand for?’ Well I stand for the things that I’ve been doing all my life – working hard, trying to climb that ladder of opportunity…

SEAN:

He has come out in favour of an apology to the Stolen Generation, a republic, getting children out of detention, an increased focus by Labor on gay rights, an increased focus by Labor on the environment. And this is one of the interesting facts about the stories Mark Latham likes to tell about himself. He says, there is a continuity in my career, I've always hated identity politics I've always been against political correctness. Well yes, it is true. But there's something a little bit bogus in that claim because in the period in which Mark Latham was most famous, in which he had most power as leader of the Labor Party, he wasn't pursuing those beliefs at all.

ELIZABETH:

But he does sort of succeed in that because there was real excitement around him at that time when he took over the Labor leadership and you know it's been pointed out in the press gallery in particular was energised by the idea of him as leader of the opposition.

SEAN:

There was an enormous amount of excitement. At that point, Labor had lost two elections: one incredibly closely, one that they had long expected to win. And now they were going into this election it looked like they might lose again and suddenly Mark Latham was leader. He was a young man. It seemed like it was full of ideas. It seemed like he could take on John Howard and for a long time he absolutely did take the fight up to John Howard. Labor was ahead in the polls. Mark Latham had the highest approval rating since Bob Hawke. There was a sense in the press gallery that this was a man with ideas who is willing to actually shake up the foundations of Australian politics.

ELIZABETH:

And then... he lost…

SEAN:

That's right.

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #1:

Mark Latham has to beat John Howard and history tomorrow - Australians have only voted out governments four times in the past 50 years. There have been many knife-edge results, but the government of the day has won every last one.

SEAN:

The election comes around. There's still a chance that Labor will win. I think the last Newspoll before the election had the two parties at 50/50. But then Mark Latham lost and in fact Labor went backwards. A few months after that, he quit the Parliament and then at the end of that year he released The Latham Diaries, which was full of quite biting descriptions of his colleagues, of politics, and of the Labor Party in general. And that I think is the point really at which a new story began to be written about Mark Latham.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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Archival tape — Mark Latham:

“New South Wales certainly needs a third choice, Labor and Liberal are on the nose, so when you talk about issues like immigration, congestion and overdevelopment in Sydney, failings in the education system like the one we’ve just mentioned, political correctness, divisive identity politics, electricity prices have gone through the roof, these are all big issues that are banking up in New South Wales, they haven’t been addressed by the major parties. And I want to provide people with a choice, a third choice, to say you can vote One Nation, and have practical common sense solutions to these big issues in our state.”

ELIZABETH:

Sean 15 years ago almost half the country voted to make Mark Latham prime minister. This year he was elected public office again but this time in the New South Wales Upper House, and this time for One Nation... What happened?

SEAN:

Well the first thing to say is that Mark Latham himself would say it's not been a massive shift - him joining One Nation. He says that One Nation isn't a racist party. He says he made sure it removed all of its discriminatory policies before he joined. Now I think that that claim should be treated with a great deal of scepticism. But taking the common sense approach, that in fact there has been a massive shift: Did Mark Latham change or has he been the same person all along, always heading for this point? I think the answer to that question is very complicated. And I'm not sure there is a very clear and simple answer.

The 2004 election is a turning point in certain ways not just because Mark Latham lost and was embittered by that loss. I think there are elements of that but as well because in that year he turned his back on certain crucial beliefs he had about identity politics, about left wing symbolic issues, and at the end of that year it turned out he turned his back on those beliefs for no reason at all. He had still lost the election. And then there’s this other devastation of the 2004 loss, which is that it killed his belief in progressive politics, really. Even though he hung on to the Labor Party for years and years afterwards, his belief in progressive politics had always rested on the idea that working class people cared about the welfare of everybody else in society and in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election loss he says he doesn't believe that anymore. He believes we've become a society of individualists, of rampant capitalism, of rampant consumerism.

ELIZABETH:

Do you think this is sort of a resentment that he harbours, or harboured, for those left in Labor?

SEAN:

Absolutely. I think that Latham resents the fact that he quashed his beliefs that year. And I think he resents with a certain dose of nostalgia, the turn that he believes the party has taken towards more left wing issues, towards embracing identity politics. Now of course that's not unique to the ALP. I think that's true of progressive parties across the world. But Latham himself sees that as a turning point, not just in his own life but for the left. And he resents the people who have taken the left in that direction.

ELIZABETH:

And what role do you think nostalgia plays in his politics?

SEAN:

Mark Latham has always been an immensely nostalgic person and you can see it in his diaries in particular, but has been there in his policy, it's been there in his personal statements. He longs for a certain time when the suburbs were a different beast. And that time is the time that he grew up in. But I think in Latham, what that nostalgia has become in more recent years and this is a nostalgia I think shared by elements of the left, is nostalgia for a time when winning elections seemed easier. And you can see this already in 1998 in Civilising Global Capital, when he's wishing away identity politics. Now it’s true: identity politics did make things more complex for progressive parties. But my view is that you don't get to wind back the clock to the good old days, because by this point we know that the good old days weren't so good for many people.

Once upon a time Mark Latham understood that nostalgia was the enemy of true progressive parties. And in that same book where he's railing against identity politics he wrote: "There is something frightfully immoral about those in public life you know full well that the past is undeliverable, yet because the electorate sometimes seeks shelter from insecurity by reviving impressions of how society used to be. They still proceed to throw back to the policies of the past and hold out false hope for the way in which nostalgia might somehow resolve the problems of the present.”

Now that...it is a very precise description of the types of politics that Mark Latham practices today. Now he sees nostalgia as a potent force still but now it's a potent force to activate something in the electorate he's trying to reach. And that is white working class men who I believe are yearning for the same suburbs that Mark Latham himself continues to yearn for, the suburbs of the 1960s and 70s. In our discussion I said that at some point he gave up trying to solve problems for the left and shifted towards exploiting them. He didn't directly rebuke me. He rephrased for me if you like. He said I think refashioning some of those ideas into something relevant to the people I represent these days.

ELIZABETH:

Latham is now in office. Do you think he intends to stay in Upper House member in someone else's party or do you think there's a bigger play that he's working on here?

SEAN:

He is potentially interested in the idea of setting up a third major party and that third major party would be formed by bringing together smaller conservative parties. He hasn't been able to devote a great amount of time to it, he's been busy running for election and implementing policies he says. But he said to me: I suppose later this year we'll see what can be done in trying to bring some of these groups together. So worryingly I would say given one nation's position in the political spectrum that is Mark Latham's next step potentially.

Before he became a member of One Nation he wrote a column and he spoke about political correctness. And he said Unfortunately the one politician seen as gutsy enough to make a stand against the madness of political correctness, Pauline Hanson, is viewed as ineffective. She's not articulate or savvy enough on policy matters to get the job done.

Osman Faruqi, who is a journalist who was being targeted by Mark Latham in the past, said to me that Mark Latham hasn't become a figure of the far right by accident. He has deliberately built coalitions by expressing resentment, by expressing prejudice against certain groups and I think that that is an accurate description. There is a risk if we only look at Mark Latham through the prism of who he has been. But where he has landed is as a member of the far right. He is a member of One Nation. One Nation is a racist party. The habits he engages in, the language he uses, are all typical of the far right.

ELIZABETH:

But unlike many on the far right he has the political skills of someone who almost led the country...

[Music starts]

SEAN:

That's exactly right. He knows how to reach the people, he knows how to speak to people. And I think that does mean that he is better placed than probably anybody else in Australia right now to make the parties of the far right more palatable and more popular. And I think that should concern anybody who cares about democratic politics in Australia.

ELIZABETH:

Sean, thank you so much.

SEAN:

Thank you very much Elizabeth.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

A gun massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, has left at least 20 people dead. The city sits on the border of Mexico and the United States, and citizens of both countries were among those murdered. The shooter was a 21-year-old white man. El Paso's police chief said the killer left a manifesto and the shooting was being treated as a possible hate crime.

And The Guardian reports that BHP is considering its membership of the Minerals Council of Australia, following a disagreement over climate policy. The miner is a significant funder of the council, and if they pulled out it would be a huge blow to the lobby.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Tuesday.

[Theme ends]

Just on 15 years ago, almost half the country voted for Mark Latham to be prime minister. Now, the former Labor leader is a One Nation representative in the NSW parliament. Sean Kelly on Latham’s politics and character, and the role he could play in the new right.

Guest: Former political adviser and writer for The Monthly Sean Kelly.

Background reading:

Mark Latham: the outsider in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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50: The Latham Moment