Books

Mark Latham
The Political Bubble

Mark Latham always understood the importance and legitimacy of anger in politics. The challenge was how to channel it.

First, there was the serious, if unreadable, book Civilising Global Capital, in 1998. Then it was the snub to the big-end-of-town salons that Labor “moderates” ordinarily crave. As federal leader in 2004, he reputedly walked into the North Shore home of a wealthy banker and asked, “Who did you have to rip off to get this?”

Then, in 2005, came The Latham Diaries. Instead of simply revelling in its  gossip, the party’s leading figures should have studied it, even just the introduction, for its analysis of Labor’s structural deficiencies and values deficit. As Latham has since argued, with characteristic modesty, they might have avoided the disasters that befell the Rudd–Gillard years.

It is hard to pin Latham down ideologically. As leader, his neoliberal critics in the Murdoch press derided him for a lack of respect for big business. His small-l liberal detractors in the Fairfax press saw him as a Western Sydney bruiser unsympathetic to their favoured issues, such as asylum seekers and same-sex marriage. The Political Bubble will only perpetuate such critiques.

But the best description of Latham came, not surprisingly, from the man himself. He was, and remains, a “club-buster”. Whether it’s elitism of the corporate boardroom or the professorial common room, Latham wants to overturn it. What makes this book so perceptive, so effective, is that Latham knows which is more corrosive to Australian democracy. The English department at the University of Melbourne may be in the thrall of green-left, cultural relativist intellectual elitists – I have no idea, but let’s use it as a debating straw man. Not to offend the professors, but so what?

The real elites are those who decide the taxes we pay, whether our workplaces close down, retrenching thousands, and whether we answer or ignore the challenge of climate change. And those elites are invariably a club of politicians and the corporate backers who write the donation cheques and turn their media outlets into cheer squads.

The “culture wars”, as Latham demonstrates, are merely a distraction. “Under the banner of ‘the culture wars’, history is rewritten to position right-wing politics as a victim of elitism and institutional bias,” he writes. “The fact that most conservative politicians and media commentators come from privileged backgrounds and maintain close associations with big corporations and wealthy citizens is ignored.”

Latham is not merely remonstrating with the right; his words are instructive for the left. Partly through the blandishments of Labor’s own neoliberal, Paul Keating, the left traded a role in the economic debate for symbolic victories in the cultural sphere. In his first two years in parliament, Latham positioned himself between the “reforming zeal” of Keating – as his acolytes routinely refer to it – and the communitarian ethos of the leading left-winger of the Hawke–Keating years, former Uniting Church minister Brian Howe.

“The culture wars,” Latham argues, “allow conservatives to enter the political debate from a different angle. Instead of having to debate issues at face value (that is, discussing their direct impact on people), the right can focus on abstract values, framing left-of-centre activists as out of touch and unworthy. This is a useful tactic for right-wingers, as it masks their own close links to Australia’s business establishment and the patronage networks of elite private schools.”

The principal vehicle by which they spread their twisted gospel is the Murdoch press and, for a while, Latham affords such apostles as Andrew Bolt, Nick Cater, Janet Albrechtsen, Chris Kenny, Piers Akerman and Gerard Henderson, the ultimate compliment of attention. He devotes a lot of time to deconstructing their work and pointing out their hypocrisy. None, for example, live in the outer suburbs they claim to champion, dealing with the inadequate public transport, education and cultural facilities. They are as inner-city as those they criticise.

But Latham also skewers their pretention – or their delusion. “While Bolt is widely admired within the right-wing tribe, he has little influence outside Australia’s political class. He preaches to a niche market, with minimal connection to the electoral mainstream.”

The impotence of Bolt and company was never more obvious than at the 2013 federal election. The right-wingers preach from the pages of Australia’s “mass circulation” dailies, such as The Daily Telegraph in Sydney and Melbourne’s Herald Sun. And yet the News Corp campaign to dethrone Labor in 10 Western Sydney seats failed spectacularly. Labor lost just two seats.

Which begs the question: if the Murdoch press has relatively little, if any, electoral power, why do politicians seek its approbation? The first reason is, perhaps, to nullify the destructive impulses of Murdoch, who, if he cannot defeat you politically, seeks to destroy you personally. Latham himself goaded Gillard – once a close friend – during the 2010 election, when on the payroll of 60 Minutes. But in The Political Bubble he destroys the credibility of her accusers in the Australian Workers’ Union slush fund affair.

With a forensic skill that seems to elude Bolt, the “investigative reporters” at The Australian, Attorney-General George Brandis and the associated “nut-jobs on the internet” – who all became Gillard’s tormenters – Latham debunks their allegations. Gillard did not establish a trust fund for her one-time boyfriend and AWU official Bruce Wilson. There is no evidence that she received a “free bathroom” care of union-funded renovations on her house. Nor is there evidence that Gillard knew that a union slush fund was improperly registered. In page after page, Latham details, and disproves, the “politics of smear”.

The other reason that the Coalition and Labor tango with News Corp is that it perpetuates the culture in which insiders talk to insiders, flattering each other for their skills in realpolitik. That’s what it means to be inside the political bubble.  PT

Macmillan, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Mark Latham, The Political Bubble". Subscribe here.

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