Saturday, September 17, 2005

Diaried and Found Wanting

In between bouts of Warcraft last Thursday night, I flicked on the TV and caught the tail end of Andrew Denton's interview with Mark Latham, the one that the ABC had announced wouldn't screen due to an eleventh-hour NSW Supreme Court injunction (quickly overturned). It was eerie, watching a man dance zombie-like on his own political grave. If the hallmarks of maturity are a) taking responsibility for one's actions and b) giving other people their due, Latham isn't fit to lead a ninth-grade peer support group, let alone the nation.

Bizzarely he feels the need to prove this to the Australian public by publishing his diaries, which consist mainly of self-exculpatory rationalisations for last year's election debacle and unsubstantiated attacks on his colleagues' integrity, not sparing even their accents or deceased parents. The vitriolic scattergun misses no one, from ALP campaign director Tim Gartrell to mentors Whitlam and Keating. The only prominent public figure who escapes unscathed seems to be the unnamed Liberal minister who wrote a conciliatory letter to Latham after his retirement from politics, backing The Australian's observation that Latham's reference point for assigning blame is himself.

Of course that framework's correct; it's only the emphasis that's wrong. 'Troops Home by Christmas', the War on Private Schools and the Forests Policy were all Latham's brainchildren and carried against the advice of colleagues, while other creaky planks (e.g. Medicare Gold) received his full backing at the time - obviously, otherwise they wouldn't have made it into the election platform. The Australian Labor Partay gave Latham the closest thing to a blank cheque one sees in politics; the fact that it bounced is no one's fault but his own.

Most frightening for a one-time Prime Ministerial candidate are the revelations of Latham's slippery grasp on foreign policy, in particular his summation of the US alliance as 'neocolonialism'. Colonialism is something practiced by first world countries on third world ones, not on other first world countries; Australia's only 'colonial' in the sense of not having quite ditched the European settler mentality (the 'white armband' view of history, one might call it). Semantics aside, Latham's comments that the alliance with Washington 'restricts our capacity to integrate with Asia' and 'one day their trouble with China will be our trouble' betray a complete lack of understanding not only of Australia's position within the region but also of its wider dynamics, which Rudd and Downer thankfully have a handle on. The fact that despite these views Latham gave the alliance in-principle support during his election campaign gives us another whiff of the rank opportunism that turns people away from the contemporary ALP.

Watching Enough Rope on Thursday, it wasn't hard to identify Mark Latham's basic character flaw. The man just can't listen, not even to a sympathetic ABC reporter; he has to keep grinding that millstone to feed his ego mill. In the Chinese martial arts, which I happened to be training in before coming home to see Latham hang himself with Andrew Denton's proferred noose, a capacity to listen is the one quality demanded of a pupil. If you don't listen, you don't accomplish things. Compare Latham's interview technique with that of Howard (or Abbott, or Beazley, whoever) and you'll see what I mean.

The irony is that Latham, who perhaps would have done better in academia than politics, did in fact have the sort of policy vision the ALP needs to get out of its ten year rut. Kim Beazley may not deserve the mud Latham's thrown at him, but his bleating about the government's failure to bulldoze its way into New Orleans is latest proof of the political bankruptcy that led his party to sell the farm on Latham in the first place. Thus despite the Tampa, the Iraq WMD fiasco etcetera, the Liberals still got my vote at the last election. They'll keep getting it too, until voting becomes optional or someone else convinces me that they're an alternative government for this country.

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