August 2019


Mark Latham: The outsider

By Sean Kelly
Photo of Mark Latham

Mark Latham, 2018. © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

How did a man with such right-wing beliefs become Labor Party leader, and what is he cooking up now?

When I ask Alex Sanchez, who served on Liverpool City Council with Mark Latham, and later worked for him when he was Labor Party leader, what his old friend is like, he pauses. Then: “He’s hilarious. He’s genuinely hilarious …” He also says, “It’s been such a long time since, so I wouldn’t even know what his character is today.”

In Losing It, Annabel Crabb’s account of the years leading up to Latham’s 2004 election loss to John Howard, she recounts his way of dealing with letters that were “racist rants or defamatory attacks”. Latham would write back, “Dear (constituent name), I am afraid you are being impersonated …”

In the past five years, Latham has twice been at the centre of legal action over defamatory attacks. In 2017, he accused journalist Osman Faruqi of “aiding and abetting Islamic terrorism”. In an earlier incident, Latham wrote that “inner-city feminists” – such as a specific columnist he named – “don’t like children and don’t want to be with them”. Both cases were settled out of court.

At one point it even seemed that Latham himself was being impersonated. A Twitter account called @RealMarkLatham had been attacking prominent women. One target, the transgender military officer Cate McGregor, complained about Latham using the term “he/she”. The account commented: “When you were wearing a nappy asking to suckle middle aged women, you looked like a he/she. Or was that a different person?” McGregor responded, but another user told her it was a parody account.

A few days later, BuzzFeed reported that this parody account seemed to be anticipating columns that Latham later wrote. But the person running the account denied the obvious conclusion, tweeting that he was just a “mate from school” called Mitch Carter. In the strange week that followed, Latham left his job as a newspaper columnist – it was unclear whether he resigned or was sacked – and appeared at the Melbourne Writers Festival, where he called his interviewer a wanker and a deviant, attacked McGregor, and refused to answer questions about the Twitter account. Finally, two months later, Latham seemed to admit the account was his.

The man who once might have been a Labor prime minister now uses the account openly, to attack “feminazis”, the “gay-left” and the “‘colonial genocide’ fake narrative”. In talking to people for this piece, the most common response was concern for what Latham might say about them now that he has the protection of parliamentary privilege – a politician cannot be sued for what they say in parliament – given he was recently elected to the NSW upper house as leader of the state branch of the prominent party of the far-right, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

“The only time I’ve ever pleaded with people in a leadership ballot, as opposed to just lobbied, was to plead with them to not elect Mark Latham as leader of the Labor Party … I think the country probably dodged a bullet, frankly, in not electing him prime minister …” That’s Anthony Albanese, a few months ago, before becoming Labor leader himself.

Latham has a “bile duct the size of Sydney Harbour”, and the country “dodged a bullet” in 2004. That’s Laurie Oakes, then political editor for the Nine Network, speaking six years after the election that Latham lost.

Bernard Lagan, one of Latham’s many biographers, says that after Latham’s resignation as leader, just months after electoral defeat, “a lot of people said ‘yes we dodged a bullet’ – lots and lots of people said that”.

I ask Dennis Glover, who wrote speeches for Latham, if his old boss is still the person that he knew. “Well, no, I’m shocked.” I ask Michael Cooney, who advised Latham on policy. “In short, no.” Lagan says he has been “somewhat bewildered” by Latham’s recent behaviour. The decision to join One Nation “astonished” him.

All of these statements ring true to me. But, in fact, there are two clear narratives on offer, and they don’t sit easily together. One suggests that Latham has changed completely, that he bears no resemblance to the man almost half the country voted for, just 15 years ago, and that his present actions are the result of some recent cleavage with his previous self. But the other – that Australia “dodged a bullet” – implies that Latham was always going to end up here, more or less, and that his present behaviour is a reliable guide to his past self. So it would not have been long, if he had won, before he caused significant damage to the country.

While researching this article, I have, like anyone who has puzzled at the career of this smart, ambitious man, wondered if I had missed something. Was there some grand plan, as yet invisible? Something that might stitch the two halves of his career together? I wondered this, particularly, after I heard Latham asked on radio if One Nation was racist. “Well, no, one of the things that I said upon joining was that anything that was discriminating in the party platform needed to be removed from the policies …”

I checked the website for One Nation NSW. A page on the party’s approach to multiculturalism read, “Ethnic enclaves invariably have a weak work ethic, seeing Australia as a picnic for Centrelink money.” A page devoted to the party’s policy of introducing DNA testing for recipients of Indigenous welfare began like this: “Everybody hates a welfare rorter, especially in Aboriginal affairs.”

Two years ago, Latham was prevented by Labor activists from speaking at a party fundraiser in Western Sydney. Somebody, he wrote in a Daily Telegraph column, needed to stop the madness of political correctness. “Unfortunately, the one politician seen as gutsy enough to make a stand, Pauline Hanson, is also viewed as ineffective. She’s not articulate or savvy enough on policy matters to get the job done.”

Osman Faruqi, the journalist whom Latham accused of aiding terrorists, points out to me that Hanson leads the most successful far-right vehicle in this country’s history, which now wields power at both state and federal levels. He also says something that sounds a lot like Latham’s observation. “One of the biggest reasons the far-right hasn’t been even more successful is that Pauline Hanson is as inarticulate and incomprehensible as she is.” He adds this warning: “Latham I don’t think is inarticulate.”

I put to Latham that he’d made this point about Hanson in his column in 2017, a year and a half before he joined One Nation, but he won’t address it directly. I ask him about something he mentioned late last year, about creating a third major party by merging smaller conservative parties. He says he hasn’t been able to devote much time to the proposal because he’s been running for election and implementing policies. “I suppose later this year we’ll see what can be done in trying to bring some of these groups together.”

Mark Latham was born in 1961, to Don and Lorraine, who met at a box factory in Redfern. He grew up on the Green Valley public housing estate, in Western Sydney, once described as “among this century’s most deliberate, unnecessary, concentrated and massive offences against Australia’s children”. His working-class background has always been a source of pride for Latham, though many believe it is also a chip on his shoulder. In early adulthood, after his rugby league team beat a team from Sydney’s wealthy North Shore, Latham yelled to the two teams drinking afterwards, “Fibro rules, OK!”

After primary school, Latham won a place at Hurlstone Agricultural High School. In the evenings, when Latham’s mother worked, he would keep studying while his two sisters cooked dinner. In Year 12, Latham joined the Labor Party. According to another biographer, Michael Duffy, it was a surprise when Latham, applying for universities, chose economics rather than law or medicine. Latham explained the decision to a cricketing mate: “I’m going to go into politics.”

In his second year at Sydney University, Latham won the J.K. Galbraith prize for political economy. The news arrived by mail. His father, who would have been thrilled, had died earlier that day. Soon after, his mother had to tell her son that the family had no assets – Don Latham had gambled them away.

Over the next few years, Latham accumulated a dream CV for a Labor aspirant. He wrote his honours thesis on Gough Whitlam, who, after Latham interviewed him, offered the young man a job. Lorraine once said Whitlam was “like a second father” to her son, but Latham has rejected the comparison: “he has never given me fatherly type advice – you know, a father talking to you in a close emotional sense about life.” After five years working for the former prime minister, Latham became a local councillor. He worked for the NSW Labor leader, Bob Carr. Then he was elected mayor. In 1994 he entered federal parliament, in Whitlam’s old seat. Just two years after that he was a shadow minister.

Most politicians, finding themselves promoted so quickly, would lap up the prestige. Instead, after the 1998 election, Latham quit the shadow ministry, sick of being “treated like dirt”. He admitted he might be sabotaging himself. “But,” he told columnist Alan Ramsey, “I’ve got my self-respect back. That matters to me. People think politicians are machines, robots. You know, you put twenty cents in our backs and we march off to the campaign … If you haven’t got your self-respect in politics, who cares about a career?” His first wife, Gabrielle Gwyther, later told The Sydney Morning Herald that it was not only his years as a frontbencher that had restricted Latham. “He spent most of his 20s and early 30s working his way up to get into politics and he married a woman that he shouldn’t have married … He was in a straitjacket and he managed to stay in a straitjacket for 10 years.”

Latham had met Gwyther at a going-away dinner for mutual friends. At some point that evening Latham began doing push-ups, seemingly to impress her. Gwyther has said that during their marriage Latham’s anger, while only ever verbally expressed, was “just below the surface”. Famously, he once tackled a taxi driver, whose arm broke when he fell. Michael Cooney says he did not find Latham an angry person, but, while generally quiet, his boss had no problem with voices being raised. “So, yeah, he shouted at me a couple of times. But I didn’t feel belittled when he did. I’d screwed something up and he was really angry and he lost his temper and then he calmed down and it was fine.” Cooney added, “I certainly had no sense we were covering for a guy who was on the boil.”

Latham married again, this time to Liberal staffer Janine Lacy. He had been told he would not have children, after earlier treatment for testicular cancer. But not long after remarrying, he was one of the first parliamentarians to take a baby into the House of Representatives. Two years later, now father to a second son, Isaac Gough, he delivered a speech at the launch of the Fatherhood Foundation’s 12 Point Plan. It was, he said, important to discuss “the changing nature of male identity”, and fatherhood was an important part of that identity, given the lack of male influences in the lives of many boys.

Right-wing figures love to attack “the left”. But it is rare for these grievances to be expressed with plaintive regret for the failings of a once-promising movement. One long passage on the One Nation NSW website is riddled with references to what the left once was, and could have been. “There was a time on the Left of politics …”, “The Left used to argue …”, “Social capital and cooperation, once the hope of the Left …”

There is no mystery about the author of this sentimental screed. It is largely copied from a column Latham published on his Facebook page a little while before he joined One Nation. Also on Facebook, Latham has asserted that members of the public frequently approach him, asking when his views changed. He says his views are “unaltered”; Australian politics has changed more than he has. “Most likely, Civilising Global Capital provided Australia’s first-ever critique of identity politics. I’m still on the job two decades later.”

That book, Latham’s second – which established his reputation as a political thinker – argued at length against a focus on what he then called “segment-of-life characteristics”. Latham usually put his distaste more concisely. In Losing It, Annabel Crabb recounted him saying at a dinner in 2001 that asylum seekers “aren’t some innocents who need our help; they’re criminals”. Latham hated “pretentious floggers”; describing his columns from that time, Crabb wrote that his “flogger” issues “include, but are not restricted to, the following: feminism, excessive fixation with the experience of asylum seekers, gay rights …”

The fact that Latham’s current fans would be familiar with the views he expressed 20 years ago leads to an important question: how did a man with such strong right-wing beliefs become leader of the Labor Party?

Part of the answer is that Latham is being disingenuous. When people ask him about his views changing, they are not comparing him to the young man who wrote a long book about the way forward for social democrats. They are comparing him to the man who led his party to an election a few years later, the man they actually remember. Within days of becoming leader, Latham had promised a republic, an apology to the Stolen Generations, children out of detention, plus a focus on gay rights and the environment.

I say to Latham that he put his opinions on identity politics to one side that year. His voice becomes quiet, gravelly and deep. He sounds sad. “Yeah, I know. I know.” Then he takes a breath, and his voice returns to its usual pitch. “Well, the party was split, and I was stuck with [Simon] Crean’s policy framework. The party had been through a terrible period, and I thought Howard might have an election in March ’04 … You just had to do the things to hold the show together.”

If that timing made Latham’s task difficult, it also made possible his rise. It’s true that Labor was bruised and vulnerable, softened up by an election it had almost won, and then by an election it had long expected to win. (This may sound familiar.) Convinced of the electorate’s conservatism, the party was perhaps more open than it should have been to this bright young man with sympathy for right-wing views.

And yet still Latham only just became leader. By 2003, he was back on the front bench, as shadow treasurer. When the leader, Simon Crean, stood down, Latham and Kim Beazley nominated. The numbers were tight. The night before the vote, frontbencher Robert McClelland told Latham he didn’t have his vote. Latham asked him to call Robert Stone, a former rugby league champion they both knew. The next morning, he did. Stone told McClelland, “Sometimes mavericks can win the game for you.” Latham won by a single vote.

It was an exciting moment. Speechwriter Dennis Glover says, “We all sort of cheered, because we thought, one, he was tough, he could stand up at the dispatch box and punch Howard in the nose again, but also because he was someone who knew Labor’s big challenge, which was to win back those people who thought we were too old-fashioned and we were living in the past.” When a backer told Latham it was a four-year campaign to make him prime minister, he wrote in his diary, “Bullshit, I can beat Howard in one.”

For some time it seemed he might. Journalist Margaret Simons, who in 2004 wrote a long and perceptive essay about Latham, says that people forget “he had Howard on the run in the early months of the campaign in a way that nobody had managed to do”. At one stage, Glover says, Labor was a long way ahead in the polls – Latham had an approval rating higher than anyone since Bob Hawke – “and we thought, that’s it.”

The day before the election, Latham and Howard ran into each other in a radio studio corridor. Latham loomed over the much-shorter Howard and, shaking hands, seemed to yank the prime minister’s arm, before moving in close. The footage is widely believed to have cost Latham a significant number of votes. Latham has rejected this version, saying that his approval numbers jumped in internal polling that night.

He has also offered the full story as defence. Every time they saw each other during the campaign, Howard would try to crush Latham’s hand, “shaking with his arm, instead of his wrist, like a flapping motion. It’s a small man’s thing, trying to show you can match the big guy at something.” On the last Sunday of the campaign, Latham says, Howard did the same thing to his wife. Latham decided, “we’re not going to have any more of that”. When he ran into Howard again, Latham “put on the squeeze and got a bit closer to him, so he couldn’t do the flapping thing. The weak animal looked startled, so it had the desired effect.”

Political fables are always overly schematic, hung on single moments that rarely deserve their supposed significance. Latham came to the leadership a fresh, exciting prospect. But watching footage of him debating Howard – debates he was judged to have won – it is surprising how flat he seems. He has an answer for everything, but where Howard constantly talks about values, Latham very often returns, passionless, to facts and figures. The handshake, with its sudden flare of aggression, is perhaps best understood as the symbol it later became, of confirmation of a fact that voters, it seems likely, had already guessed: something had been squashed.

Much of the blame for the election loss landed on the leader, but Latham was soon focused on a more personal crisis. Just before the campaign, he’d been struck by pains during a meeting with Bob Hawke, who told Latham’s staff, “This boy needs a doctor.” Latham was diagnosed with pancreatitis. He asked a specialist what happened if his pancreas conked out: “Do you get a new one or something?” He was told, “No, you die.” A few days after Christmas, Latham suffered a second attack. Three weeks later, he resigned both the leadership and his seat in parliament. He was 43.

Some months after that, The Latham Diaries was published, full of scathing observations. The media went crazy. Latham’s former colleagues savaged him. A letter printed in the Herald Sun at that time, from H.W. Ziems of Seymour, read: “Some 13 years ago I was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, a disease which turns happy-go-lucky boys into bad-tempered, cranky old men. I feel sorry for Mark Latham.”

All of us have moments that, with hindsight, assume a shimmering significance: if only we had arrived five minutes earlier, or kissed that person instead of this person, the whole course of our lives might have been different. But we don’t know – we can’t know – and often comfort ourselves by believing that, one way or another, events would have conspired to lead us to the same place anyway.

One of the fascinations of politics is that it provides an uncomfortable reminder of the force of those moments. A vote provides finality in a way most of life does not. Biographer Bernard Lagan believes that, had Latham won, “he would have been a different person and I think he could have made a fine prime minister, I really do.”

But even then, Lagan says, Latham might have resigned after the second pancreatitis attack. “I don’t think he would have said, ‘Look, I’m prime minister, I’ll take the risk and die in office’ … His love for the boys was such that he probably would have got out.” That may be true, but it seems unlikely that Latham would have published The Latham Diaries, which opened up the first serious crack between him and the party he joined at age 17.

Latham might not have broken with Whitlam. While Latham was sick, and refusing to comment on the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, his colleague and mate Joel Fitzgibbon passed on a message: Whitlam believed he should resign from parliament. Latham, who had already decided to resign by then, never spoke to Whitlam again. Later, Latham turned on Fitzgibbon too.

In The Latham Diaries, Latham wrote, with an enviable lack of self-scrutiny:

Of all the people I’ve been associated with – Labor people, my staff, Green Valley types, Hurlstonians, the Liverpool Council mob, the first wife, even our neighbours in Glen Alpine – the only ones who haven’t snitched on me are the Liverpool Bulls, my rugby club mates. The only ones who still practise working-class solidarity.

This nostalgia is everywhere in Latham’s writings. “I used to talk about the suburb where I grew up,” he wrote in The Latham Diaries, “and people thought I was strange for doing so. We have become a society obsessed with the places to which the economic caravan can take us, not the places it has left behind.” He has written approvingly of “early Left thinking, such as the ideals of guild socialism”. Here he is lamenting the rise of machine politics: “I was living off a memory, my idealised notion of how the Party was supposed to function.” He told me he is still “wistful or sentimental” about people in Labor, even though they have “lost the plot”.

There is, in Latham, a yearning for an uncorrupted time and place – and perhaps, I suspect, for an uncorrupted version of himself. His regular break-outs, the throwings off of straitjackets, are never, as they are in the lives of some public figures, attempts at wholesale reinvention. They are always attempts to return to an earlier, romanticised Mark Latham, the battler larrikin, formed before the forces of the world began to try to mould him into a shape he didn’t like.

Osman Faruqi was 27 when he woke up one day in 2017 and found that people were tweeting about him. The online Daily Mail, one of the most-read English-language newspaper websites in the world, had run an article quoting Latham accusing Faruqi of encouraging terrorists.

Faruqi, at first, thought it must be a joke. Then he watched the video Latham had posted online. Latham told his followers: “Anyone out there, on the left of politics in particular, that’s fermenting [sic] hatred of white people, the rise of anti-white racism in Australia … they are aiding and abetting Islamic terrorism … Now there’s an instance of this earlier in the week, a guy called Osman Faruqi …”

What had set Latham off was a comment Faruqi had made, not about terrorism, but about the resignation of two senators who had discovered they were dual citizens. Another public figure, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, had tweeted “Dude wtf is happening…?” Faruqi had responded, “The white people are getting fucked Yas, it’s happening.”

As the Daily Mail piece spread online, Faruqi began to panic. “Being accused of being a terrorist when you’re a brown guy from a Muslim background in Australia is a pretty scary thing.” Faruqi showed me some of the abuse that has been directed at him since that moment. On social media, one person said they would use his photo at the shooting range. Another wrote, “Lynch him.” Another, “needs some lead”. One man identified himself as a “trained killer”.

Faruqi was accustomed to online attacks. But, he says, “Something really changed when Mark Latham decided to make that video.” Faruqi says that because of Latham’s “completely bizarre history, the risk is that we treat him as this bizarro person and not one of the most powerful and scary figures on the far right of politics in Australia”.

Two years earlier, Latham had become “mesmerised” – his word – by Donald Trump. It was around this period that he began to criticise domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty. Latham’s dispute with Batty is often characterised as a disagreement over the causes of domestic violence, which it is. But it is also the case that Latham sarcastically attacked Batty from his mysterious Twitter account, for being “such a great judge of male character”. He was clearly referring to the fact that her ex-partner beat her son to death.

This is odd behaviour from a man who once led the Labor Party. It is, however, entirely predictable behaviour for a member of the far-right. Attack. Provoke outrage. Claim martyrdom. Repeat. Latham continues to go after Batty. He attacks Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales and Lisa Wilkinson. He attacked the 15-year-old daughter of the governor of the Reserve Bank. He detests “Left feminists”. When he is sued, or sacked, he claims free speech is under attack. He uses far-right lingo, like “cultural Marxism”, a phrase with anti-Semitic overtones that was used by Anders Breivik, the far-right Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people. Faruqi says that Latham didn’t build his profile “as a far-right figure by accident; he did it by targeting specific groups and building a coalition around him on that”.

I ask Bernard Lagan if he believes Latham is sincere. He says he has asked himself that question often. I ask Dennis Glover, who says perhaps, and then says, “Put it this way, when he left politics my assumption was that he’d become a Sydney radio shock-jock.” Michael Cooney tells me that Latham once saw “politicians pretending to be bigots to win the votes of people in the suburbs as patronising … There’s something in Mark that is better than that but he’s just chosen the low road.”

I ask Latham why his party’s website says people hate welfare rorting especially in Indigenous affairs. He tells me, “Rorting money that should go to the genuinely needy of course is especially reprehensible.” The exchange continues:

SK Does the party have policies that target other types of welfare rorts?

ML Well, look, I don’t read the federal platform every day.

SK No no, sure. I’m talking about the state website.

ML Look, One Nation would be against all forms of welfare-rorting, of course.

SK No no, sure, but I’m talking about what’s on the state platform.

ML Well, state has particular responsibility for Indigenous with the land rights system … But as for the broader federal welfare system, I haven’t been involved in developing those policies ’cause they’re policies for the federal party.

At another point, I say to Latham that it’s still Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. “I’ve never heard Pauline talk in a discriminatory fashion about anyone,” he replies. I say that can’t be true. “In my discussions with her inside One Nation,” and in her recent campaigning too, he clarifies. After a while on this he says, “Sean, I can only tell you what I’ve heard and been involved in for eight months. What happened before that I can’t answer for, and I asked for changes to the policy platform on the basis of me joining. They happened and I’ve heard nothing since that has caused me any concern.”

The thread holding Latham to the left was always thin. In his maiden speech to federal parliament in 1994, Latham explained his understanding of his party. “Ultimately, Labor’s hopes for a more equal and just society rely on a certain judgement about human values: the belief that whilst people will always defend their own interests they also care enough about the society in which they live to advance the interests of others.”

It is easy to miss what is most interesting about this statement, because it so obviously echoes the sentiments of other Labor politicians in its commitment to equality and justice. But it is not a plain statement of belief. It is an analysis, one that is conditional: Labor believes X because it has made a judgement that Y is true.

After the 2004 election, Latham decided he had been wrong about Y. He puts this clearly in The Latham Diaries: “[I] had assumed that as [working people] climbed the economic ladder, they would still care about the community in which they lived, and take heed of the interests of others, especially the poor and disadvantaged. This was my misjudgement of modern society.”

Think, then, of the several devastations of that election loss. Personally, it would have been humiliating: Labor had not just lost an election that had once seemed in reach, it had gone backwards. In order to make himself electable, or acceptable to his party, or to keep his party together, Latham had suppressed some of his clearest beliefs. Finally, the basis of his belief in progressive politics had been shattered. A year later, broadcaster Andrew Denton said to Latham in an interview, “You’ve given people a lot of reason to feel cynical. You haven’t offered any way forward.” Latham answered, “No, well, I couldn’t find any …”

The surprise, after all of this, is that Latham did not immediately leave the ALP. To Denton, he said, “I still belong to the Labor Party and wouldn’t ever join any other organisation.” In 2013 he wrote a Quarterly Essay, offering Labor advice. He continued, he says, to help Labor at the local, state and federal level.

Going over this history, I can’t help but feel sad about what is coming. I think of something Michael Duffy wrote. At 15, Latham penned an article for his school magazine, attacking waste like the “lavish distribution of stencils and paper”. Soon after, he attacked the school again, but with the caveat that it was “truly a fine school”. Duffy’s assessment: “he was already revealing himself as a critic who at heart loved the institutions he attacked”.

He tells me it was crushing when Labor Party activists worked to get him disinvited from the fundraiser for a local MP in early 2017, particularly the fact that it happened in Western Sydney, “where I’ve lived for 55 years now, and for me it’s been my life, my politics, my existence …” When I thank him for his honesty on this, he says, “Well that’s how it felt. How would you think I’d feel? … Demoralising. Terrible. I still feel bad about it.”

He joined the Liberal Democrats, and the Labor Party banned him for life. The meetings of his new party, he wrote, “remind me of how Labor used to be when I joined the Green Valley Branch in 1979”.

Latham and his new party could not agree on what role he should play. He left, and joined One Nation.

The left, and particularly Labor, like to see Mark Latham as an outlier, a slip-up that will never be repeated. But that would be a mistake. Latham’s journey is significant not because it is unique, but because it is one every centre-left party in the English-speaking world has come dangerously close to following in recent years.

Two decades ago, Latham was prescient about the challenges that were coming for the left. He was one of the first politicians to talk about “aspirational” voters. He believed the split between “insiders” and “outsiders” was the defining political divide of our time, Margaret Simons tells me, “and it is, he was right, and that’s a kind of brilliance”. But what these examples have in common is that they are not, really, about policy, or philosophy. They are about politics, and what Latham believes voters want.

Where some politicians believe their job is to persuade, Latham has always been unusually committed to the idea that his role is to follow voters’ orders. In 2001 he set up a website so that locals could tell him their views on certain issues – in parliament, he said, he would vote the way they asked him to. He tells me now, “People want me to represent them in a certain way [and] if I think it’s reasonable, I’ll do it.”

This is the heart of the matter. Who are they, these people who want him to represent them in a certain way? No prizes for guessing. At another point in the interview he tells me, “Identity politics excludes poor people, white working-class men restructured out of manufacturing jobs, and the resentment it builds up about that, among those white men in public housing estates and other working communities, it’s a dreadful thing for social justice”.

Latham, with his tendency towards nostalgia, may seem particularly prone to the appeals of the far-right, with its longing for a golden age in which the West stood tall. But the nostalgia you see so often in Latham’s writings, for the suburbs of his childhood, is not so far from the nostalgia of some parts of the left, which too fondly remember a time when winning elections seemed easier, because those suburbs, full of white working-class men, were the only group they had to reach. Latham’s argument, about growing resentment among the voters he is supposed to represent, is precisely the argument you hear from people in the left to suggest they move a little further right.

When Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair say, today, that the left must win back voters by taking harsher stances on immigration, they are not so far from Latham. And when the leader of the NSW Labor Party says that “Asians with PhDs” are taking the jobs of “our kids”, or when federal Labor runs an ad that says, “Employ Australians first”, with footage of mostly white workers, they are even closer. It seems, at times, as though parties of the centre-left are only ever an election loss away from adopting full-blown racist policies – as a way of achieving left-wing goals, you understand.

Once upon a time, Latham knew that nostalgia was the enemy of true progressive parties, which must always reckon with the new, however difficult that seems. Twenty years ago, he wrote:

There is something frightfully immoral about those in public life who 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.

I put to Latham that at some point he gave up trying to solve problems for the left, and shifted towards exploiting them. Instead of directly rebuking me, he redefines the aim as “refashioning some of those ideas into something relevant to the people I represent these days”. He says he gets tremendous feedback.

Towards the end of our discussion, I mention, in passing, the 2004 election. He interrupts me. “Well, 2004, I wish I was running against the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison rabble. Bloody hell, it was a lot harder against John Howard, let me tell you: low interest rates and a strong economy off the back of the mining boom, bloody hell, budget surplus in the bank. Jeez, you want to talk about nostalgia – how you’d love to run against the current mob in that framework instead of Howard in ’04.”

Earlier, I had asked Latham whether, as prime minister, he would have taken the party to the right. “Oh, well, I suppose so, but I don’t think about that much ’cause I lost. Not much point, is there.”

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue


The terrible truth of climate change

The latest science is alarming, even for climate scientists

Photo of Lil Nas X

Happy trails: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’

The gay country-rapper exposes the complex play of identity, algorithms and capitalism


Surf and turfed

The Australian surfers battling Chinese developers in Fiji

Cover of ‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

An emotionally eloquent novel about the necessary inheritance of strength in Indigenous women

More in The Monthly Essays

Street scene from a roundabout in Deloraine, Tasmania

The rotten core

A Tasmanian inquiry uncovered decades of catastrophic failure to protect young people in the state’s care and a bureaucratic tangle that sheltered their abusers

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, in rolled sleeves standing in front of Hansard library

After robodebt: Restoring trust in government integrity and accountability

The attorney-general makes the case for reforms to Australia’s institutional checks and balances

watercolour and pencil drawing of plains-wanderers

Notes on a disappearance

Urban spaces, camouflage and the fate of the plains-wanderer

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality