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Latham needs to make friends with working-class women, not enemies

By Darlene Taylor - posted Thursday, 29 January 2004

Mark Latham's winning of the federal Labor leadership last December can be understood as a twofold commitment to the new. That is, the defeat of Kim Beazley has been read as a break with the old ALP, while the relatively youthful Latham has vowed to become a changed man, at least when it comes to cutting “crudity” from his public routine.

Latham as modern front person rings true in relation to his advocacy of a politics that transcends the left/right binary. There have, however, been times when his working-class persona has left him sounding as anachronistic as Prime Minister John Howard's version of white-picket fence suburbia.

When Andrew Denton tried to coax the then Shadow Treasurer to sing his former football team's song on Enough Rope, his hesitation was blamed on the “… matrons at Mosman,” who he assumed would be offended by the ribaldry of the lyrics. Leaving aside Latham's connection of the feminine with Sydney’s North Shore, there is something quaint, not to mention derogatory, about his view of women of wealth.


So these “ladies” do not, and supposedly never, cuss, curse or enjoy bawdy humour, and was he implying that all working-class women do?

A brief look at the role of women in the Liberal Party reveals that money does not always guarantee an easy ride up the “ladder of opportunity”.

Conversely, Latham has ascribed a profane ruggedness to Sydney's western suburbs, and consequently to himself. “It's tough on the streets of Bankstown,” he told Denton in partial defense of the time he crash-tackled an allegedly less-than-professional taxi driver. “[Arse-licker is] a standard working-class term”, he schooled the Parliament, as if no affluent adolescent catching a bus to school ever uttered a rude word.

More than two decades ago in Labor Essays, R W Connell described the machismo some blue-collar men practice to compensate for being in thrall to a boss. Latham has uncritically accepted that identity, even though, or perhaps because, it has been a long time since the economics graduate and former Labor staffer turner politician could truly own it.

As the emergence of post-materialist movements such as environmentalism and queer rights indicates, the centrality of class cleavages to the way we view our political allegiances and ourselves was already diminishing by the time Latham joined the ALP in the 1970s.

Glenn Milne argued in The Australian on 22 December 2003 that “[Latham’s] personal tale is invariably described in the class rhetoric of the 19th century”. This could hardly be assumed to be popular with today's electorate, and it is not in tune with his post-industrial “Third Way” stance.


This is not to argue that a person's financial position is not, even today, an indicator of social rank. Young people growing up in families where unemployment is constant and intergenerational have a tough time transcending their circumstances. Often envisioned as the “unworthy poor”, they do not fit into Latham's “aspirational voters,” those hard-working Australians who, like himself, strive for a better life.

The blokey stereotype Latham uses can act as an impediment as much as a lack of material assets; it renders invisible those who found a working-class upbringing an alienating and sometimes painful experience. Women who have encountered the unfunny side of some “larrikins” have less reason to romanticise a culture than someone who can indulge in it when he wants. Limited self-confidence, which can be a by-product of exclusion and abuse, is a major obstacle to the achievement of upward social mobility.

If Latham has acknowledged women from poorer backgrounds it is to have a go at their work ethic. Helen Masterman-Smith, in her feminist critique of Civilising Global Capital in The Other Sydney: Identities and Inequalities in Western Sydney, was not impressed with Latham's positioning of working-class women (at least the unmarried ones) as clueless drains on the public purse who need to be guided towards independence.

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About the Author

Darlene Taylor writes for the popular group blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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