August 2005

Arts & Letters

The Vanishing. It wasn’t the time, but he was the leader Labor had to have.

By Mungo MacCallum
‘Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy’ by Bernard Lagan

For a movement founded on the principle of democratic socialism, the Australian Labor Party has thrown up a surprising number of leaders dedicated to the führerprinzip. Inevitably this has been a cause of tension, usually escalating into conflict. The Liberal Party, as befits a party espousing free enterprise and the supremacy of the individual, gives its leader something close to carte blanche to run things as he sees fit. Labor has always sought to place checks and constraints on those it grudgingly elects to the top job.

A Labor leader cannot, in theory, determine policy; that is the prerogative of the party’s national conference. Even when he is prime minister the leader cannot pick his own ministry. All he can do is allocate portfolios to the list provided by caucus. In the day-to-day running of parliamentary affairs the leader is supposed to give way to a majority of his front bench, and even those decisions can be overturned in the caucus room. The frustrations this system generates can be explosive. Labor’s longest serving prime minister, Bob Hawke, was prepared to go through the motions, but when the crunch came he always believed that what he saw as his special, almost mystical, relationship with the electorate gave him the right to bypass normal procedures.

Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, was more direct: he always said a leader was there to lead, not to listen, and he followed this course to the bitter end, even when it earned him the title Captain Wacky during his last disastrous election campaign of 1996. And the great Gough Whitlam made no secret of his conviction that he had always been destined for greatness, and that the party was lucky to have him. Once, in the dying days of his government, a deputation of ministers came to plead with Whitlam to take more advice. The spokesman began diplomatically, “Gough, we all know that you’re the best thing the party has going for it ...” before being interrupted with the crushing retort: “Then go away and stop wasting its time.” They had touches of egomania, for sure, but it is worth noting that Whitlam, Hawke and Keating won elections, something the less arrogant approach of Bill Hayden and (so far) Kim Beazley has signally failed to do.

Personal associations apart, it is hardly surprising that the impressionable Mark Latham chose to model himself on those who had crashed through rather than those who had failed. As Bernard Lagan’s forensic Loner (Allen & Unwin, 246pp; $29.95) makes clear, Latham was not up to the task and a daring experiment ended in tears all round. Latham was destroyed in a ruthless and sometimes dishonest election campaign led by a prime minister prepared to stop at nothing in order to retain office and the tenancy of Sydney’s Kirribilli House for his wife. Although Latham’s impetuosity and lack of judgment clearly contributed to the size of his defeat, the 2004 election was one that Labor was never going to win. Its only hope was that John Howard and his government would somehow self-destruct, and Howard’s totalitarian grip on his own troops meant this was never likely.

Any realistic assessment of Latham’s Icarus-like trip as leader should start from this point: he may have failed in his mission, but it was always mission impossible. The false hopes generated in those early days of 2004, when he so decisively wrong-footed Howard and the polls lurched wildly in Labor’s favour, were never likely to be realised once Howard’s “Big Lie” – as The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher dubbed it – on interest rates got a grip in the mortgage belt. Lagan describes Latham’s anger at the ALP campaign team’s failure to counter this scare campaign, but even now it is hard to see how it could have been neutralised. Latham’s own reply – his public signing of a large cardboard pledge – was rightly dismissed as a stunt. If anything it only reinforced the perception, fed by a vicious personal campaign from the Coalition, that he was too naive and inexperienced for The Lodge.

The irony is that when voters actually encountered Latham at his community forums they invariably liked and trusted what they saw. And what they saw was something they could relate to: a large, rather unkempt sort of man, no great orator, but someone who could get to the guts of a situation, the sort of man you’d quite like to have a drink with in the country clubs that were the usual venues for Latham’s gatherings. What’s more he didn’t just talk, he listened to your gripes, even if (strictly speaking) they were none of his business. He’d help if he could and if he couldn’t he’d say so. And you could get to him. He wasn’t surrounded by cops and bodyguards and minders like the other bastards were. Those who met him face to face responded, but in the limited time available too few of them had the opportunity.

Would the amiable, unthreatening Beazley have done any better? Perhaps, but still he would not have won; as a senior minister in the Hawke–Keating years he would have been even more vulnerable to the interest rates scare than Latham. The perception that Labor was in need of a generational change was, and is, correct. But the most promising candidate to make it, a man of substance and passion, was thrust into the job too early and has now been permanently invalided out of politics. It might make a good subject for Sophocles; Lagan’s own down-to-earth style, honed by years of reporting on the High Court, is not dramatic enough to do it justice.

His book covers the essential facts of Latham’s rise, his fall and provides some new insights into Labor Party machinations. Most attention surrounding the book has focused on Latham’s post-election outbursts, depicting the premiers as A-grade arseholes, Beazley as a quivering, jelly-like, stand-for-nothing leader, and the party as an organisation run by conservative machine men, beyond reform, beyond repair. Some of the insults are over the top and it should be remembered that they came at a time when Latham was seriously ill from his recurrent pancreatitis. But there remains an uncomfortable core of truth to them. The Labor premiers, especially Bob Carr in New South Wales and Steve Bracks in Victoria, were at times deliberately unhelpful to the federal cause; the campaign out of head office frequently broke down; the factional manoeuvring from those more intent on keeping their own power bases intact than on winning government was a constant hindrance.

This last problem looks set to continue under Beazley. While it does not mean, as Latham laments, that the party is beyond repair, it does not bode well for next time. And of course there will be a next time. Somehow Labor always bounces back. In a funny sort of way, the Latham legacy may help the process. Amid all the party’s disarray and bitterness, the recriminations and name-calling, one point of consensus has at last emerged. Left and Right, battlers and aspirationals, traditionalists and trendies all agree: would Mark Latham please shut up and go away? Sic transit gloria Laboris.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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