Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Latham Diaries

The overriding theme of The Latham Diaries is of a man with all the answers to the Labor Party’s political woes, struggling against a moribund organisation that pointedly ignores everything he has to offer. At one point in the Diaries Latham describes himself as a ‘caucus Cassandra’ – one pleading to warn of dangers ahead, but no one listening. By the end of the book I had this image of Latham as Saint Sebastian, being killed in a kind of slow, unbearable ecstasy by innumerable arrows (ecstasy in the original Greek means to be outside of oneself).

The major difficulty for the reader will be to try and figure out how much of Latham’s attitude and general perceptions have coloured/distorted what actually happened. For example, was Beazley really trying to start a smear campaign, spreading around allegations of sexual misconduct on Latham’s part? And what of some of the more extraordinary claims, like Kevin Rudd breaking down in tears? I’m inclined to think it's too wild and extraordinary to have been invented. But on the other hand, you have to be sceptical. Latham dishes it out on just about everyone, constantly referring to his party colleagues as ‘these people’. I was also shocked that he could be so indiscreet as to report conversations he had had with people that were obviously intended to be private.

In some ways, the book almost reads like a fast paced Christina Stead comedy. Indeed, I thought a lot of the diary entries would make great material for a novel. When we watch television reports, all we see is the official, self-important side of politicians, but Latham here portrays people at their most human and pathetic. Like his visit to Bob and Blanche Hawke's luxury pad. He describes the opulent lifestyle of the former unionist, deciding to leave the house once the masseur arrived for B & B’s regular afternoon sessions. I also enjoyed the sections where Latham goes to Keating for advice. Keating comes across as some sort of wise old mafia boss.

So, strangely enough, this book should give Australians good reason to get involved in politics, as it paints a group of very mediocre and human people. Latham really lifts the veil.

On the Latham policy front, I of course winced every time I had to hear ‘social capital’, ‘mutualism’ or the dreaded ‘ladder of opportunity’ mentioned. I was never really convinced that Latham had a real passion for communities and grass roots democracy. Rather I sensed that he was an ideas nut, an intellectual of sorts, trying to weld his grand social capital scheme onto the Australian public. In the book he states it starkly as, ‘the intellectual reconfiguration of social democracy to deal with the new realities of economic and social change.’ This is a top down approach to social change.

Furthermore, Latham talks about some of his Dick Morris inspired ideas. Here is Latham contrasting his style against Howard’s:

‘I’m under his guard with the politics of personal connection – connecting today with the needs of the Brooks family. This is what Dick Morris calls ‘stooping to succeed’ = staying out of Howard’s firing line on the economy and national security (except for troops out of Iraq), and rolling out a new agenda for families in the outer suburbs.’

But my question is, what is he more impressed by, this type of spin, or the day to day issues that really affect people. His entry about when he went to visit the forests with Bob Brown (whom he admires), is quite revealing:

‘Spend Wednesday and Thursday looking at trees. Not normally my scene, but this is what the New Politics is about: opening up issues for a public dialogue, examining the facts, trying to find points of common interest.’

Most of Latham’s frustrations are that no one listens to his ideas. He even worries over the fact that his ‘ladder of opportunity’ expression had become completely forgotten by the end of the 2004 election campaign.

I reckon I can rely on at least 50% of The Latham Diaries as being true. His sections on the media we can all certainly vouch for. I remember when Crikey was getting all excited over the possibility of there being a buck’s night video of Latham. Just that 50% is enough to give punters a good peek into how our political system works, and make people realise that they could do as good a job if not better themselves. If the Latham diaries has that kind of knock on effect, then it will have been for the good of us all.

Related Web Experience links:

Loner, by Bernard Lagan

Mark Latham Quotes

1 comment:

Rohan Leppert said...

Why did you 'of course wince'? I am no Latham fan either, but I found his 'passion for communities and grass-roots democracy' to be genuine, or, at least, more genuine than just about any other federal MP (not including Bob, of course!) - when you're the leader of the Labor party, surely any attempt to force social change is going to be a 'top down' one. Not the ideal situation, of course, but his ideas were worth a lot more than the media, or his stupid catch-words, suggested. I was so excited when he broke the factions and won the leadership - I'd have him over Rudd any day.

I couldn't put this book down. I don't think I could give an objective review, because I was indulging myself in the political geekery more than anything else -- I still use the index like an encyclopedia when I'm wanting to know more about federal MPs!

I LOVE your description of Keating as 'some sort of wise old mafia boss' - perfect!