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Book review: The Latham Diaries, ten years on

All by myself. AAP/Alan Porritt

In September 2005, Melbourne University Press (MUP) published former Labor opposition leader Mark Latham’s personal diaries, covering the 11-year period he served in parliament. The book turned Latham, who resigned as leader and from parliament in January that year, into a pariah in the ALP’s eyes.

In the book, Latham does not hold back on his opinions of caucus colleagues, factional leaders, union heavyweights, business elites and journalists. The book caused a sensation. It not only included Latham’s own views, but recounted comments from other Labor caucus members and party figures, many of which were scathing.

Sales-wise, The Latham Diaries was a huge success. MUP ordered a second print run before the book had even been released.

I first read the book in 2005. The book does contain vitriolic insults about political figures of the day. But what struck me then and has remained with me was that The Latham Diaries provided an excellent discussion of the parliamentary Labor Party in the wilderness years post-Paul Keating.

Given that the book was released so soon after Latham quit parliament, I decided a re-reading was warranted in order to determine how well the book had aged and if there were larger lessons that could be taken from it a decade on.

An outsider within caucus

From the time he was a backbencher in the Keating government through to his stint as leader, entries in the book often end with Latham declaring himself the outsider. Latham views himself as a lone operator who often finds only Keating and Gough Whitlam agreeing with his position and encouraging him to keep up “the good fight”.

Within the book Latham is a “true believer”, battling against the ALP’s machine men. But his view of Labor and what it stands for is a romanticised one.

Latham looks back with rose-coloured glasses to mythical glory days, when a purer ALP was committed to improving the lives of working-class Australians. He forgets the splits and factionalism that are just as much a part of ALP history as the campaigns for a minimum wage and universal health care.

Former prime minister Gough Whitlam was a mentor to Mark Latham during his time in Parliament. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Rejection of the old

Latham despairs at Labor’s rejection of the legacy of the Hawke-Keating economic reforms. He claims that the ALP under Kim Beazley’s leadership was so eager to distance itself from the Hawke-Keating era that no-one – including Beazley – seemed to know what the party stood for.

For Latham, the wilderness years of opposition were unbearable. He is utterly contemptuous of Beazley’s attempts to gain government:

After six years of Beazley’s small-target strategy, we face an identity crisis. The True Believers don’t know what we stand for and the swinging voters have stopped trying to find out.

Latham’s view was that the ALP should gain government because of the appeal of its policies, rather than strategic targeting and poll-driven responses to issues of the day.

Out of step with his party

One of the most interesting things about Latham is that his passion for economic reform – including reduction of tariffs, fiscal accountability, winding up generational reliance on welfare – and his belief in social capital was at the forefront of social democratic thinking in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

While the ALP was busy distancing itself from the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era, many social democrats in Europe and the US were using the reforms as a successful example of “Third Way” thinking. Latham was one of the leading advocates of Third Way politics in Australia during this period and published on the topic.

The Latham Diaries provides an insight into Latham’s views on where the ALP should be heading. While interested in the stories and lessons told by Keating and Whitlam, for Latham the real excitement is always in the future:

That’s the difference between us. I see a problem in the public arena and think: how do I solve it and explain the solution to people? Beazley sees a problem and thinks: how do I analyse it and exploit it?

Latham’s other area of concern focuses on his view that there is a social capital deficit in Australia which not only has a negative impact on political engagement, but also on the way in which we all live our lives. Latham regrets the lack of community that seems to pervade the sprawling Australian suburbs.

ALP factionalism

Throughout the book, it is clear that Latham understands how the factional system of the ALP works:

My belief in adventurism means that I will always have an uneasy relationship with the NSW Right … I joined the Right in the mid-1980s for pragmatic reasons: in a two-faction state you had to join one of them to have any hope of preselection.

The faction, however, is based on a culture of anti-intellectualism. Policy is made through a series of deals rather than the public interest.

Latham’s own behaviour is at times partly driven as a response to the factional system:

Simon Crean’s leadership came under pressure from the factional and union interests opposed to organisational reform … I resolved to remain loyal to his leadership, mainly on principle but also out of self-interest, as this assisted my rehabilitation in caucus after three years on the backbench.

Like many former members of caucus, upon leaving parliament Latham reveals a hatred of the factional system and the rise of machine men controlling the party. His disdain for the “three roosters” – Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan and Stephen Conroy – is evident in many of the entries:

These roosters have not learned anything from the leadership debacle. They are small-minded troublemakers and white-anters who would love to see me fall over to hurt Crean – two for the price of one.

Mark Latham made clear his disdain for the ALP’s factional system, run by the likes of Stephen Conroy. AAP/Alan Porritt

The relationship between the press and caucus

The contempt Latham has for the press gains momentum throughout the book. In particular, Latham targets:

… the three gallery journalists who have run a ten-year critique on me are Oakes (Jabba), Grattan and Milne (the Dwarf).

Latham despises the culture of leaking among his colleagues. He quotes a June 2003 speech he gave supporting Simon Crean’s leadership:

If the push against our leader were to succeed, it would set a shocking precedent. This long campaign of leaking, backgrounding and sabotage would be legitimised within the ALP.

Following Crean’s departure as opposition leader, Latham assumes the role and tries to deal with the leaking within caucus:

I’ve had my suspicions for some time now that Rudd has been feeding material to Oakes. Decided to set him up, telling Kevvie about our focus groups on Iraq. No such research exists … Today right on cue Jabba has written in The Bulletin.

Post-2004 election fallout

Latham’s angst at the sacrifice of time with his family for his political career is genuine. He and his second wife, Janine, discussed whether or not he should continue in the role:

What can I do now? Three more years in this rotten job, three more years staring across the chamber at a Tory government … It’s tempting to pull the pin.

Having decided to remain as opposition leader, at the end of 2004 Latham suffered a second attack of pancreatitis, which he thinks was most likely a result of radiotherapy treatment he received for his cancer:

It’s all turned to seed: pancreatitis, time away from home, loss of privacy, impact on family, so many ficklers in politics, disdain for the media and the whingeing, gossiping, sickening caucus … that thing they call the Labor Party.

The relief Latham feels at his escape from the rigours of political life is evident.

Lasting lessons

While the book ends with Latham happy at being able to spend time with his family and regain his privacy, the reader is left with one over-arching question: how do we fix this problem?

Latham described an Australia where the country’s main reform party rejected its economic credentials, played small-target politics and refused to engage in the major debate on political philosophy of the late 20th century.

Ten years on, many of the complaints Latham made about the workings of Australia’s parliamentary system have moved from the secret inner sanctum of Canberra to everyday news events:

  • In-depth policy debate appears to be a thing of the past as politicians from both sides simply repeat the slogan of the day at whatever event they happen to be at.

  • Leadership issues quickly come to dominate the news cycle.

  • Leaking dominates the political environment. A mixture of disgruntled MPs seeking retribution and the ambitious looking to make friends in the press gallery provides the daily fodder that now dominates political coverage.

The flaws in our political system that Latham highlighted continue to affect us. Australia remains a poorer nation as a result. Ultimately, The Latham Diaries remains a seminal piece – not only having revealed the ALP’s inner workings, but having highlighted policy issues and structural problems that continue to be of concern a decade on.

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