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Latham the victim

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 24 January 2005

The ridiculously rough and relentless pace of Australian political life has claimed another victim in Mark Latham. Mr Latham has rightly decided that the demands of political life at the top level in this country and his ailing health are not compatible.

It's a pity, because despite the considerable flaws in Mr Latham's political ideas and strategies, his restless intellect and inquiring mind will be missed by the ALP and Parliament.

The extent to which politics in this country saps the energy and idealism out of those who play in the Canberra pond was seen recently when the ABC ran a story questioning whether or not Mr Latham was in fact ill, as he said he was. On January 11, ABC TV's 7.30 Report reporter Tracey Bowden included this statement, "But just how sick is Mark Latham? Well enough, it seems, to spend time at the seaside town of Terrigal, north of Sydney".


And on the same day ABC radio's PM program spent taxpayer dollars joining their media colleagues in soaking up the sun of Terrigal, all waiting for a sighting of Mr Latham. PM quoted some unidentified young children on the beach who gave us this absurdly irrelevant news. "Yes, (Mr Latham) was in a shop. We were just talking about that. He came into our shop. I swear, I salted his chips. I cooked his fish.''

Meanwhile, at Mr Latham's western Sydney home, according to PM, 15 to 20 media organisations were standing around waiting for a glimpse of the Opposition Leader, his wife or anyone else who might be at home.

With the exception of film stars and rock musicians, how many other individuals in Australia get sections of the media obsessing about their every waking hour and what they might be doing? The tenor of reports like those of the 7.30 Report and PM were almost indignant. Mr Latham's failure to issue a statement on the Boxing Day tsunami disaster sent some commentators feral.

Mr Latham, explaining his absence, said he had suffered another bout of pancreatitis over Christmas. This, it would seem from the perspective of some, meant that he should be confined to bed. Despite the fact that a holiday and illness are not mutually exclusive, many could not accept his desire to be left alone to recuperate and return to work on Australia Day. What this sorry episode shows once again is that politicians are expected by some parliamentary and media peers to be superhuman.

Yes, there were journalists and Labor MPs who believed Mr Latham should be allowed to recover in peace, but they were drowned out by those who believed he was public property, no matter what the circumstances.

When Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett was involved in an altercation with a Liberal senator at the end of 2003, his subsequent confession of his battle with the demons of depression and alcohol cut no ice with some harsh and cynical media types and public. One media commentator who interviewed me about that incident said emphatically that Bartlett should quit politics because he couldn't handle the stress.


And remember The Australian newspaper's campaign last year against former Liberal leader John Hewson, whose marriage was collapsing and who was ill, when it staked out his Sydney home and a restaurant where he was dining.

Yes, Mr Latham made an error in not responding quickly via a statement on the tsunami tragedy.

But the obsessive hounding of the Opposition Leader and his family from western Sydney to Terrigal, the cynical questioning of whether or not Mr Latham was really ill, all helped to ensure that his fall from the perch was swifter than usual. Political life in Australia has never been for the weak, but it's now getting to the point where physical or mental illness is a handicap that ambitious colleagues and some in the broader community will prey upon.

Why would anyone bother to want to go to Canberra, given this state of affairs?

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First published in The Herald Sun on January 20, 2005.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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