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Method in his madness

1 Jul 2005
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Amid the vitriol there’s a potent message for Labor, according to David Burchell

IF ONLY Shakespeare had lived in the age of email. What tragic potential could he have found in our new communications technology! Farewell to the endless speeches, the literary beating around the bush. Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III could all have gone stark, staring bonkers in ‘real-time’, in the electronic glow of a computer monitor.

Tap, tap, tap go Hamlet’s fingers on the keyboard, as he cuts off all his personal ties and friendships, and descends into the abyss. Don’t press that ‘send’ button!, the audience all plead, silently. But he does anyway, and off it goes, straight into Ophelia’s in-box.

From: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark [hamlet@thepalace.dk]
To: Ophelia
cc: The King, Polonius

Subject: Our (past) relationship

Message: Fair Ophelia! How are you? I’m well, myself. Let’s get straight to the point. Men are all a bunch of beasts, and women are all sinful temptresses. Me, I’m proud, revengeful and ambitious. You, you’re not to be trusted. I never loved you anyway. Get thee to a nunnery.

Best,
Hamlet

These irreverent (and perhaps irrelevant) thoughts came into my mind while I was reading the extracts from Bernard Lagan’s new biography of Mark Latham, Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy, in this week’s issue of the Bulletin. Lagan’s title is the right one. The word tragic is overused nowadays. But Latham is a genuinely tragic figure. And we now have his personal emails to prove it.

In fact, he’s a figure worthy of Shakespeare himself. All that talent, ambition, vision on the one side of the ledger. All that anger, vindictiveness and loneliness on the other. A man who seemed to balance on a knife edge between political greatness and political disaster. And who was pushed over that edge, in large measure, by the working through of his own ‘fatal flaws’.

Lagan tells his readers that he first rang Latham a few days after the Labor maverick become ALP leader, at the end of 2003. Within a few weeks Lagan found himself traveling the countryside in Latham’s campaign bus, following the new leader’s whistle-stop tour through the town halls of regional Australia. To his surprise, all the while Latham bombarded him with his private thoughts, hopes and fears.

Later Latham fired off to Lagan a series of long, rambling emails, justifying his actions, and attacking those of his opponents. At the time Latham was in great physical pain, as well, no doubt, as suffering the pain of political failure. As rivals lined up to depose him, he felt angry and betrayed.

Ordinary common sense would have told him: don’t press that ‘send’ button! Sit on this, at least until the morning. But his anger and pain spoke louder, and he pressed (maybe even thumped) ‘send’ anyway. Now one of these emails has become perhaps the most notorious electronic message in Australian political history.

But back to the story. For Lagan, in the back seat of Latham’s campaign bus, this was a heady time. Latham was appealing directly - or so he hoped - to ‘Howard’s battlers’, the ordinary, striving working folk in the outer suburbs who felt Labor didn’t represent them any more. They were anxious about asylum seekers, jealous of their new home, worried interest rates might go up.

For Latham, the task was to show them Labor still cared about the bread-and-butter issues of local communities. And so he visited child care centres, talked tough love, fatherhood and family. For a while it seemed to be working.

But Latham’s take on the state of the nation was a matter of personal instinct. He didn’t listen to advisers, didn’t worry much about polls. In the 2004 election campaign, he flew by the seat of his pants, driving everyone around him to distraction. Policy proposals seemed to appeared out of thin air. A dramatic change of policy on logging burst out of nowhere just a few days before the poll, causing chaos.

Labor didn’t just lose the election: it actually went backwards. From that moment on, everything unravelled. Labor’s face of unity, Latham’s own self-confidence, even perhaps his grip on events. His emails to Lagan - with their denunciations of the party he aspired but a short few months ago to lead into government - hint at more than a purely physical breakdown.

The saddest thing of all, as Hamlet’s would-be uncle would have said, is that there is method in Latham’s madness. Take out the vitriol, the violent anger, the wounded pride, and Latham’s email criticisms of his former party carry some real force.

It’s true that Beazley is primarily a steady-as-she-goes leader. Labor has found no new policy directions in any of his three terms in the leader’s chair. In fact, you could go further, and suggest that to a considerable extent Labor has been in a policy holding position ever since it lost power in 1996, nine long years ago.

The recent calls in Labor’s ranks to draw more attention to Labor’s economic record in government are testament to that fact. Labor was a highly competent economic manager for most of the period between 1983 and 1996. But that’s ancient history now. It really is time for Labor to move on.

Finally, Latham’s right to point the finger at the state of the federal party and its ‘roosters’. The leadership vacuum that consumed Labor in the last months of 2004 demonstrated just how few genuine contenders there will be to the party leadership when Beazley’s once again steps down. There’s no shortage of egos, of course. Yet in personnel, as in policies, Labor’s running on empty.

In a few months Latham’s political diaries will be published. It’s bound to be an ugly moment. People who once cared for the man will shake their heads sadly. Senior figures in federal Labor will once again be in damage-control mode. Unfortunately, though, because of the man’s extravagant personality, I’m not sure many lessons will be learned. •

David Burchell teaches in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, and is associate editor of APO.

Photo: Andrew Jeffrey

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2005
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