Latham’s new low
The former Labor leader used to denounce One Nation
Former Labor leader Mark Latham’s defection to One Nation, if it is consummated, promises some cracking fireworks for the next federal election, which would be an unwelcome distraction that could do some real damage to Labor’s campaign. Latham has not yet confirmed if he will return to politics, but already he has disrupted the Longman by-election by doing robocalls for One Nation, and last night on Sky News he had a spectacular stoush [$] with former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson, now a political commentator, who called him a “king rat”. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said similar today, describing Latham as a “charlatan” whom voters would see straight through. It is all the more remarkable, because Latham once wrote of how first wave One Nation, claiming to be a people’s movement, was “infested by the fascist right” and “collapsed under the weight of its own authoritarian leadership. Each of its leading players wanted to be Fuhrer.”
Latham was once Labor’s best and brightest, anointed as a future Australian prime minister by Gough Whitlam, whose old seat of Werriwa Latham won in a by-election in 1994. The former mayor of Liverpool enjoyed a spectacular rise through the ALP ranks and was feted by the media, including News Corp, which gave him a regular column in the Daily Telegraph, as did Fairfax’s AFR, where Latham wrote a column called “third way”. After a short but spectacular term as Opposition leader that flamed out after John Howard decisively won the 2004 election, the publication of the tell-all Latham Diaries broke Latham’s relationship with the party. By the time Latham gatecrashed the 2010 election campaign as a mock reporter for Channel 9, the gloves were well and truly off. Latham is a big bloke, and Julia Gillard wrote in her memoir of being confronted by him wanting to ask her “questions”, and having to physically find her way around him. “Who knows what was motivating Mark at this time!” wrote Gillard, previously one of his strong supporters. “When his leadership ended in a mess, with him bitterly launching into print with a deluge of unpleasant observations about politics and his colleagues, I did my best to urge some generosity towards him,” she wrote. Latham recommended an informal vote in the 2010 federal election.
Latham was one of Labor’s most progressive thinkers, writing a string of books. He was a strong critic of Hanson when she formed One Nation in 1997 and flamed-out herself at the 1998 election, when all major parties put her party last. A “greatest hits” from Latham’s old columns and his Diaries show how his tune has completely changed. Writing in the AFR in 1999, Latham championed the third way’s “internationalist economics and skills-based social policy”. Noting that the five federal seats with the worst level of education in Australia – Wide Bay, Hinkler, Maranoa, Blair and Oxley – each recorded the highest support for One Nation, Latham argued that education could be the “stake through Hanson’s heart”.
In the Daily Telegraph, Latham wrote that Pauline Hanson’s political talent lay in giving people a chance to vent their anger, not so much through her ideas or opinions, but her personality: “The Hanson persona is a perfect match for the One Nation constituency: resentful, distrustful and overwhelmingly negative.” Citing her opposition to dairy deregulation, which farmers had voted for, he concluded: “Thank goodness the electorate is only casting a protest vote. If we were governed by this sort of nonsense the country would soon be in receivership.”
Nowadays, of course, Latham has abandoned the third way completely and is a paid-up member of the alt-right, consumed by culture wars like the fight against “anti-white racism”. He joined Liberal Democrats last year, but is unlikely to stand for them given that founder David Leyonhjelm will head the party’s Senate ticket at the next election. Hanson wants Latham to head up One Nation’s Senate ticket in New South Wales – most likely why sitting senator Brian Burston quit – and, if Latham decides to run, things could get interesting.
In the Longman robocall, Latham accuses Shorten of being a liar, and says he has personal experience of this – it’s not clear what. In his Diaries, Latham made clear that there was no love lost between him and “Little Billy Shorten”, then at the AWU, who had not backed Latham for the leadership, but pledged support once he was voted up. At the end of his book Latham rejected Shorten’s solution to Labor’s woes, a shift to the right. If Latham chooses to return to politics, whatever he decides to throw at Labor, he certainly has the potential to distract from and destabilise the campaign. It’s the kind of disruption Hanson thrives on: the best moment of last night’s stoush between Latham and Richo was when the program cut back to Hanson, beamed in from Brisbane, loving every minute of it.
Latham is complicated – as one party insider says, half the time he sounds perfectly reasonable, the other half like an old man shouting at the clouds. Latham may have been out of the party a long time, but, as he showed last night, he still knows where the bones are buried. It’s a reminder of the worst side of Labor: when the infighting turns ugly. The Coalition will be loving it.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Former Labor leader Mark Latham’s defection to One Nation, if it is consummated, promises some cracking fireworks for the next federal election, which would be an unwelcome distraction that could do some real damage to Labor’s campaign. Latham has not yet confirmed if he will return to politics, but already he has disrupted the Longman by-election by doing robocalls for One Nation, and last night on Sky News he had a spectacular stoush [$] with former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson, now a political commentator, who called him a “king rat”....