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Captain Wacky or 'The Latham Lessons'

By Rebecca Huntley - posted Thursday, 6 October 2005

The bulk of the mainstream media commentary on The Latham Diaries follows the pattern of reporting set down when he was a central player in public life. The focus has been on the rumours, personal vendettas and political manoeuvring that so consumes the majority of the political elite. Latham has done much to fuel this focus himself in his interviews since the release of the book.

But the value of The Diaries as an insight (albeit overwrought and self-centred at times) into our political culture is undeniable. Labor activists are reading it in droves and the majority verdict is in.

Call him sexist, brutish, self-delusional, disloyal, mad, whatever, his analysis of Labor culture specifically and political culture generally is spot on.


I have told people in the Party, players at all levels - sure, we can dismiss this guy as Captain Wacky, but he is right about the Party. And what are we doing about it? Very little.

There are two intriguing and unexpected aspects of The Diaries that deserve more attention than the pole dancers and profanity focused on by the commentariat.

The first relates to his repudiation of aspirational politics. This is a significant admission considering it formed the basis of so much of Latham's policy work and public comment. It was always something that grated on the nerves of his Left wing colleagues, who saw it as code for "downward envy", a mentality that viewed the disadvantaged as worthy of their plight. Latham argues in the introduction to The Diaries that advocating aspirational politics is fraught with danger when social capital is at a low ebb. People climb the ladder of opportunity but kick down at the bastards behind them.

The second insight relates to how the modern ALP formulates policy. It is of particular interest to me, as I was a member of the National Policy Committee (NPC) in 2003 and early 2004. When I became a member, the NPC consisted of nine people and was a new invention, replacing the various issues-based policy committees that existed before. These had been abolished on the basis they were full of factional appointees with minimum interest in policy and maximum interest in political resumé-padding.

It was costing the National Secretariat a fortune to fly committee members around the country and organise phone hook ups, for supposedly minimum policy development. The creation of the NPC was a tacit acknowledgement that it was shadow ministers, not party organs, which create the policy for conference and ultimately for government.

The new NPC had nine months to consult and prepare the platform for the 2004 National Conference. We first requested consultation plans from the various shadows. I was shocked with the results. Some shadows were doing great work but many were consulting with only a handful of the usual suspects. The quality of the consultation plans was evidence of either a disregard for consultation or a disregard for the NPC's processes - or both. As I looked through the plans on the train to the University of Wollongong to teach my communications tutorials, I resisted marking 4/10 on some of the submissions. It left me feeling disillusioned with the depth of talent on our front bench.


The NPC's own consultation plan for the platform involved meetings with state policy committees as well as a few sit-downs with interested shadows. I remember some of the committee members who were alive with policy interest and had worked hard on their submissions to the NPC - the True Believers. Their ranks are dwindling but they are still there. We weren't allowed any consultations with rank and file members, although within the Left, NPC members tried to instigate a limited discussion around key policy priorities.

With the various drafts of the chapters submitted, the NPC sat down to a weird and unstructured process of going through them one by one and trying to incorporate some of the suggestions from our consultations. Looking back it was a flawed and frustrating process, sitting in a drab room in party headquarters in Melbourne, under the gentle but ever present supervision of the National Secretariat and the Leader's office.

As shadow treasurer, Latham had gutted the chapters associated with his portfolio and rewritten them dramatically. Unlike any of the other shadows, he refused to submit himself to the NPC process of suggesting amendments and additions. He resisted attempts too, by Left union leaders, to modify the chapters. The NPC waited for Latham to get back to us about our suggestions. He never did. He fobbed us off, releasing his proposed policy ideas to the media before we ever got a chance to talk to him. We were all angry about the snub but what could we do? A few months later he was leader and more willing to engage in dialogue and compromise about the platform than he was as shadow treasurer.

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About the Author

Rebecca Huntley is a writer and social researcher and the author of the forthcoming The World According to Y (Allen & Unwin).

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