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Mark Latham: Australian politics' rising star - or just the ALP's?

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 27 August 2003


This is a grim time for those who expect a little character in their political leaders. The states in the main are led by a bunch of competent but bloodless technocrats whose major interest seems to lie in spin-doctoring and national politics has been as boring as hell since Paul Keating jumped ship. In particular, anything like real leadership - as opposed to cynical opportunism - has been totally lacking.

Of the current leaders on the national political stage one person stands out like the proverbial painful digit and that is Bob Brown. He is the only leader that looks like he notices anything beyond the latest opinion polls and the machinations of his own party. As for the conservatives, since I can't take Tony Abbott seriously (because he seems to have no positive abilities, just negative ones), Peter Costello stands alone. In response to his anger at Howard freezing him out of the leadership for a few more years, Costello is supposedly about to show us his gentler side in relation to the republic, Indigenous issues and social matters. But exactly how this right-wing corporate lawyer is going to do that is still a mystery.

My ignoring of John Howard is deliberate. If ever a man has shown that in certain times power can be won and wielded without any of the higher abilities of real leadership, it is Howard.

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Labor, which has to have a more even spread of talent to keep its head above water (because it cannot rely on big business to set agendas and tell it what to do) has a handful of up-and-comers. In particular Lindsay Tanner clearly has the intellectual ability and Julia Gillard is well spoken of, but the one who has obviously moved onto centre stage recently is Mark Latham.

Latham played the Beazely leadership challenge brilliantly, starring as loyal lieutenant to Crean. Now he can hardly lose and must be odds on to be next Labor leader, whenever the chance arises. Crean rewarded his loyalty with the shadow treasury - now generally seen as understudy to the top job - and with manager of government business in the House of Representatives, a job just vacated by that "rooster" Wayne Swan. So he now has the most important shadow portfolio outside the leader's and probably the most important job inside the parliament.

Clearly, Latham is making his move and so now we are treated to the spectacle of him taking on the government in parliament and in the media, effectively the point man for Labor. He is also endeavouring to consolidate (some might say rehabilitate) his personal image. He went on Andrew Denton's Enough Rope and tried to explain the taxi driver incident and just why he bashed the CNNNN kid about the head with the foam bat. Personally, I have at times thought about breaking some rabid, proto-fascist taxi driver's arm, but the opportunity never arose, so I have some sympathy for him there. But the video image of him trying to obliterate young Reucastle in front of Parliament House will haunt him I fear.

However, I suspect the country - and especially those Australians being hammered into the ground by Howard's increasingly brutal neo-liberal policies - could use someone with a bit of bite in him. At least Latham comes across as having real beliefs and emotions to go with them. The "maverick" tag that the media have lumped him with in the past has been mainly due to the laziness of journalists who too often ignore matters of political substance and go for the personal angle. Latham in fact has a strong record of credible policy work behind him.

Latham has, after all, gone to the trouble of working out his ideas in some depth and breadth and getting them published in book form. Along with Lindsay Tanner, he has in this way provided almost the only consistent intellectual leadership in the ALP over the last few years. His views have been characterised as being in the "Third Way" camp, championed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. This position, like Clinton and Blair themselves, is looking a little stale now. Certainly the failure of so many flag bearers of global capitalism - like Enron, Worldcom, and here HIH - and the ongoing dishonesty of mega-firms like Citigroup and Microsoft should make us all much more sceptical regarding the virtues of private enterprise.

But Latham is undoubtedly a smart man, and he can see that times are changing as well as anyone. Now, as effectively Labor's number two, and especially as likely future leader, he has both the incentive and the capacity to develop new policy positions that are consistent and genuinely responsive to the real issues.

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There is something reassuringly old fashioned about Mark Latham. With that face, haircut and functional dark suit, you could imagine him standing just behind John Curtin and to the right of Ben Chifley in one of those old grainy black and whites. Mostly though it is the expression on his face. Tough, ready for a fight, it is nonetheless the face of someone who has a strong idea of what of he wants, and it is not just personal power. He looks like he understands Chifley's idea of the light on the hill, and knows that a sustained struggle that is moral as well as political in character is the only way to keep that light shining.

Latham does apparently have some personal demons to wrestle with, as real leaders often do. And let's hope he goes easier on taxi drivers and TV comedians in future. But if he can harness that obvious energy to the cause of Labor revival, the nation might yet see a genuine political leader once again.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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