Australian politics, society & culture


‘The Political Bubble’ by Mark Latham

Macmillan Australia; $32.99

CoverOctober 2014Short read

“The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. The political theorists of the past fantasised about what governance could solve in conditions of universal learning and material abundance. They didn’t anticipate those conditions would result in a government that can’t seem to solve anything and a people with no faith that the situation will change. In this book, Mark Latham tries to explain how we got here.

He does it through a number of case studies that pit the barbecue-belt of mainstream Australia against the right-wing media, inner-city pinkos and Labor Party apparatchiks (a collection that overlaps neatly with Latham’s own Enemies List). Globalisation and education have turned voters into entrepreneurial nodes with no time for the blather of the political class, he argues, and if dying media organisations and ideological politicians would only stop scaring them, we could get on with the business of competition.

This trial-by-combat approach is good in columns but isn’t suited to a problem of this complexity. Latham ends up crediting individuals and organisations with a power they don’t have. Andrew Bolt is simultaneously rendered as outside the mainstream, the most-read columnist in Australia, and someone responsible for alienating people from politics. News Ltd’s treatment of the Australian Workers Union non-scandal was obsessional, but a 60-page discussion of it might have the same problem. There’s a place to exchange pedantries with Gerard Henderson, and that place is the Correspondence section of Media Watch Dog.

Latham rarely acknowledges that global competition might itself be scary, or that voters might resent politics for exacerbating its dangers. Both the author and voters seem to agree that government is impotent in the face of these changes; only Latham sees this as inevitable or even a good thing.

There’s less emphasis on civilising global capital and more about getting out of its way. “Contrary to Marxist theories of the radical left, capitalism is becoming more equal, not less. Over the past century, for instance, illiteracy rates have fallen from 70 per cent of the world’s population to 20 per cent.” Not only is this a hard sell post-Piketty, it also makes no sense: illiteracy rates aren’t themselves a measure of economic equality, and improving them is almost exclusively due to government intervention.

In his oddly sawn-off list of solutions, Latham seems to acknowledge that the two major parties really are the same, and just have different strengths in implementing an inevitable agenda of deregulation. Most Australians share this view. It’s the reason they don’t trust politics.

About the author Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is a writer, broadcaster and contributing editor to the Monthly.