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Latham's vision lacked driving force

By David Burchell - posted Friday, 21 January 2005

When Mark Latham's abrupt, querulous resignation speech drifted over the airwaves recently, that old Greek aphorism came into my mind, "A man's character is his fate".

His whole life Latham has been a lonely, restive spirit. He was at his most effective tossing out thunderbolts from the backbenches. The office of the lone, neglected visionary sat well on him.

For such a man, the leadership of a great political party is a vexed task. His personality is his lodestar, yet it has to be tethered by the sense of service and a greater duty. Latham's journey as leader was a troubled one - by turns invigorating and disconcerting, fresh in spirit but curiously flat and predictable in execution. He assumed the sense of duty, but he wore it like a ball and chain.


Remember that first media conference, back in December 2003, when Latham instinctively reached for his own childhood experiences to define Labor's new mission? The repetitious, unscripted references to that notorious "ladder of opportunity", as if drawing out of a personal well of hope and experience?

It was ingenuous, and it was compelling. Yet it must have been the loneliest acceptance speech in political history. Never did a party leader stand in such solitary fashion on the mountain peak. It was if the party rested solely on his shoulders. And in a sense it did. For if there was Lathamism, there were no Lathamites. Maybe half a dozen people in the federal party really understood what he was on about. He had few sources of advice - and in any case, he was well nigh unadvisable.

I was one of those who'd held high hopes for a Labor revival under Latham, even before his unexpected accession. In a piece published in The Australian the day after that victory, I described him as a man peculiarly well-crafted for the political moment.

Labor had been tentative and directionless: he'd been arguing for a new direction. He understood that the party had become too closely associated with the earnest moral outlook of the inner-city professional classes. And he spoke of the need to regain touch with the hopeful but anxious world of the suburban patriots, who in the end have it in their weal to grant and deny political office in this country.

In retrospect, our hopes were at best exaggerated, at worst misplaced. The stars weren't really in alignment. Leadership is not a craft learned on the backbenches or in the writing of tracts. Latham the shooting star simply hadn't had a chance to learn it. As he himself probably realises by now, he wasn't ready for the job.

Paradoxically - given that he pondered much on the lessons of his working-class childhood in Sydney's west - Latham's achilles heel was his excessively academic outlook on the world. He'd worked hard on developing road maps of "new politics" for Labor and clearly hoped that leadership would be a matter of implementing them.


Yet political leadership is mostly a matter of reading the moment, not charting out the future. This discovery seemed to baffle Latham. Only someone armed with such tremendous theoretical confidence could simply forget to address the concerns of mortgage holders in an Australian election campaign.

Latham's personal and political tragedy has demonstrated how immensely hard it is to push the political planets out of their alignment. By the same token he also demonstrated, unintentionally, how underestimated a leader is the current prime minister in his sense of the juncture, the possibilities of the moment.

As Labor's fallen star convalesced in weary solitude with his family, John Howard effortlessly seized on his greatest triumph - the reshaping of Australia-Indonesia relations and the reconciliation of Australians after the south Asian catastrophe. As the Romans liked to say, the gods play with us for their sport.

The only prudent option for Labor now is Latham's old adversary, the redoubtable Kim Beazley. On the positive side, Beazley has been made wiser and stronger by his own extensive history of political travail. Like Howard, he has been forced to learn leadership the hard way.

At the same time, it's entirely unclear that Beazley - or those around him - understand the profound depth of the political and policy challenges now facing Labor.

Latham, for all his fatal flaws, did. He could feel in his marrow that it was not enough to rest on Labor's past laurels - that Labor had to understand the confidence and self-reliance that animates striving Australians today, and not be saddled with the symbolism of another era. What Labor most needs is a bout of Lathamism without Latham - the ideas and insights without the personal agonies. And at a time when too few people will be wishing Latham well, I might add. Australian politics needs Latham the visionary outsider back again. Perhaps in his natural home, the academy.

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First published in The Australian on January 19, 2005.

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About the Author

David Burchell, a senior lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney, is author of Western Horizon: Sydney's Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics.

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