Latham revisionism

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Mark Latham has made another return to Australian political debate in the last few days, with an article from his former chief of staff being published in a scientific journal, arguing that Latham suffered from a “narcissistic and paranoid personality”:

In a article written for the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, Mike Richards – who lost his job during the 2004 federal election loss – analysed Mr Latham’s behaviour during his turbulent year as Labor leader, The Age newspaper reports.

Dr Richards, who wrote his doctorate on a narcissistic personality, says Mr Latham’s promising political career was spoiled by “tragic personality flaws”.

“Latham’s narcissistic and paranoid personality shaped a consistent pattern of political behaviour,” he wrote.

“The core features of that style are a distinctive political brilliance and drive that is accompanied by paranoia and destructive tendencies – anger, rage, envy and resentment – which suggest an inner dynamic involving overweening ambition defending against (that is, compensating for) low self-esteem.”

Of course, a lot of that makes sense. But you also have to question, how many politicians fit into these criteria? I would consider narcissism, paranoia and a lot of the other symptoms described to be typical of most successful politicians.

The treatment of Mark Latham and his legacy ever since 2005 has been one of the most stunning cases of political and media doublethink in recent political history. Someone who doesn’t remember the 2004 campaign could reasonably believe 2004 was this crazy year when the entire ALP caucus went collectively insane and selected a lunatic as leader, who ran around the country tearing the place apart before receiving his rightful bollocking, at which point the ALP caucus woke up and became nice and sensible again.

Both major parties and much of the mainstream political media has conveniently spent the last four years rubbing out the history of the 2004 election. The assumption is that Howard’s victory over Latham was always inevitable.

Yet it needs to be pointed out that, for much of 2004, Latham’s polling numbers were stratospheric, before falling back down to earth in the second half of the year. Even on election day, when the result was probably certain, my memory is that, while Howard was favoured, people I spoke to weren’t as certain that Howard would win as, say, people were certain that Rudd would win in 2007.

The political journalist class has largely found it convenient to run with the “crazy Latham” meme as an antidote to their embarassing fawning over Latham during the 2004 campaign. It probably didn’t hurt that Latham didn’t pull any punches regarding the media in his 2005 diaries, giving them little motivation to treat his arguments and legacy fairly and much motivation to discredit his diaries and the opinions within. Usually such strident criticism of the political establishment by a former federal leader of a major party would be considered a key political document. Instead most who haven’t read the book would consider The Latham Diaries to be a crazy rant with little value.

The Liberal Party found value in painting Latham as a dangerous lunatic, as they could then bash the ALP for the misjudgement in electing him as leader and following his lead for an election campaign.

For the ALP, they also had strong reasons to paint the Latham experiment as a temporary bout of insanity. For the ALP political establishment that never really got onboard with Latham’s personality style (even though his actual policies were never particularly radical), it became easy during the 2005-2007 period to paint the 2004 election defeat as solely due to Latham’s role. Get rid of Latham, get rid of the problem. This avoided having to deal with the deeper structural issues. More importantly, the ALP was desperate to discredit the author of the most insightful critique of modern ALP culture, someone who has some of the best credentials to make such a critique.

Of course, Latham’s personal style probably never made it easy, and another leader may have done better. Yet you can’t ignore that, for a number of months in 2004, Latham was one of the most popular Opposition Leaders in recent years. Indeed, Mark Latham’s appeal and difficulties stemmed from the same source: he was a true outsider. He was never popular with the ALP political establishment, and his political outlook, despite fitting in perfectly with the ALP’s neoliberal economic agenda, challenged the way politics is done. The ALP first experimented with a radical choice with Latham in 2004, before succeeding with a conservative choice with Rudd in 2007. In contrast, the US Democrats went the other way, failing to elect a conservative choice in John Kerry in 2004, before succeeding in 2008 after taking a gamble on Barack Obama.

This is the real lesson of Mark Latham’s leadership. His leadership wasn’t a momentary bout of insanity, it was a gamble. It didn’t pay off, but that doesn’t mean it was always bound to fail. And if Latham had succeeded, Australian politics today would be very different, and much more interesting.

Update: Mike Richards’ article has been published online by Crikey, and you can read it here. It’s actually fascinating and well worth reading. Although I still wonder whether all the revelations about Latham’s narcissistic behaviour are any worse than the sort of stuff that could’ve come out about leaders like Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Ben, I think you overplay the significance of Latham’s way of doing politics. Yes he was quirky, vaguely populist and unpredictable, but I think his value within the ALP was greater than his impact publicly.

    Despite being a hard, ideological free marketeer he was able to speak to Labor’s core support base with a superficial, class-based “us and them” language (tied together with some crude anti-US nationalism). This made him appear more radical than he actually was, and it was enough to rally the demoralised ALP troops who had been so distressed by Beazley’s capitulation over Tampa and 9/11.

    Latham’s initial high rating in the polls can be better understood as voters desperate for a real opposition to Howard seeing possibilities in him. However, don’t forget that he stopped cutting through for a period of months in mid-2004, leading to a big decline in ALP support in the polls. This was partly reversed when he wrong footed Howard on the Free Trade Agreement, but he was unable to sustain momentum thereafter.

    I agree that subsequent attempts to pin the loss solely on him are disingenuous, but he was no more the solution than any other Labor leader… wedded to neoliberalism and quite happy to send right-wing messages on social issues (his position on refugees was the worst of any post-Keating ALP leader). That the ALP caucus took a chance on him only proves how confused and directionless they were after the 2001 election and their inability to take a clear position against the invasion of Iraq.

    In the end they won in 2007 on the back of widespread rejection of Howard’s agenda and a mass activist campaign against WorkChoices that they piggybacked on, not because they found the right “solution”. Although having a leader a bit less unstable than Latham certainly didn’t hurt.

  2. I agree about Latham’s politics. I saw a lot of him before he became Opposition Leader because he was my local member, and it’s certainly true that he was very right-wing. However I still think a Latham government would be more progressive than a Rudd government, simply because of his personality style.

  3. “However I still think a Latham government would be more progressive than a Rudd government, simply because of his personality style”

    Hmmm…. are you sure you mean that?

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