Mark William Latham (born 28 February 1961), a former Australian politician, was leader of the Federal Parliamentary Australian Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition from December 2003 to January 2005.
Latham captured national attention and, initially, high levels of public approval with his policies and unconventional approach, but also attracted controversy surrounding his past. In the October 2004 federal election, Latham was defeated by Prime Minister, John Howard. Deteriorating relations with his party and ill health saw him resign as Leader on 18 January, 2005.
In September 2005, Latham released The Latham Diaries in which he attacked many of his former colleagues and members of the media, as well as condemning the general state of political life in Australia.
Latham was born in Ashcroft, a suburb of south-western Sydney in New South Wales. He was educated at the selective Hurlstone Agricultural High School, where he was dux, and at the University of Sydney, where he graduated with a degree in economics. He worked at the Green Valley Hotel for a little over six weeks. He also worked as a research assistant to the former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam and worked on the latter's book The Whitlam Government.
In 1987 he was elected to the City Council of Liverpool, in Sydney's south-west, and was mayor from 1991 to 1994. Latham played rugby union with the Liverpool Bulls club and had a stint as its president.
Latham's term as mayor saw radical changes introduced to the council, with large spending on public works, to be paid for by a combination of loans and efficiencies achieved from outsourcing many council services. The public works, including libraries, a pedestrian mall and public art, have been highly praised in accounts of the period.
In an article in Quarterly Essay (issue 15), journalist Margaret Simons, who conducted an extensive investigation of the period, concluded that there were real issues in the financial management of the council. These mostly related to the drafting of the outsourcing agreements. Simons also said most of the allegations come from council members who were sacked for incompetence by the state government.
On 1 June, 2004, Latham told Parliament that during his time as mayor he had reduced Liverpool's debt-servicing ratio from 17 percent to 10 percent, which he said was less than half of western Sydney's average. He also said Liverpool had adopted a debt-retirement strategy that he claimed would have made it debt-free by 2005, but which was not implemented by his successors. Councillor Colin Harrington, whom Latham defeated during the mayoral elections of 1991, later said these figures were not accurate. He said the average debt-servicing ratio for western Sydney was 12.1 percent and he said the council's financial staff could find no significant reference to the debt-retirement strategy.
On the backbench, Latham published Civilising Global Capital: New Thinking for Australian Labor (Allen and Unwin, 1998), in which he argued that Labor needed to abandon many of its traditional policies and embrace the aspirational values (home ownership, higher education) of the upwardly-mobile skilled working class and small business class. His policies as the leader of the Labor Party were largely derived from the stance taken in this book, which ideologically is described as 'the third way'.
These views alienated him from many Labor traditionalists, but his aggressive parliamentary style won him many admirers. He once referred to Prime Minister John Howard as an "arselicker" and to the Liberal Party frontbench as a "conga line of suckholes" . He also described U.S. President George W. Bush as "the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory" .
On politics, Latham commented in 2002: "I'm a hater. Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness. I hate the way, for instance, John Howard tries to appeal to suburban values when I know that he hasn't got any real answers to the problems and challenges we face. I hate the phoniness of that" .
The Howard government targeted Latham's brash personality and his colourful past. Howard characterised him as "Mr Flip-Flop", referring to a character in a children's book. Peter Costello attempted to damage Latham's economic credentials by referring to the experimental economic ideas that he had put forward as shadow treasurer, such as abolishing negative gearing and replacing the GST with a Progressive Expenditure Tax. Frequent references were made to Latham's temper; he was alleged to have broken a taxi-driver's arm in a scuffle arising from a fare dispute . However, Latham was uncharacteristically calm in the face of these attacks, surprising many members of the media.
On winning the leadership, Latham moved swiftly to heal the rifts in the Labor Party and to moderate his abrasive image. He appointed his predecessor, Simon Crean, as shadow treasurer, while also retaining a number of Beazley's supporters in senior positions. In July 2004 Beazley himself was re-elected to the ALP front bench as Shadow Minister for Defence.
Latham gave a promise not to use the kind of "crude" language he had employed in the past. He and the party's foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd, met the United States ambassador, Tom Schieffer, to stress Labor's continuing support for the Australian-American alliance.
In January 2004 the Labor Party national conference was held in Sydney. During the conference Latham received very positive media coverage and introduced his plans for early childhood literacy. He introduced an unusual campaign style, choosing to focus on "values" issues, such as reading to children and economic relief for middle-class Australia, which he termed with the political slogan ease the squeeze.
Latham also put forward plans to reform the education and health systems. In contrast to the intense stagecrafting of Latham's image at the conference, he boosted his profile by means of loosely organised "town hall"-style direct meetings around the country. By March, Labor had taken the lead over the Coalition in the opinion polls, and Latham had a higher personal approval rating than any opposition leader since Bob Hawke in 1983. Commentators began to discuss the serious possibility that Latham could be Prime Minister by the end of the year.
In March, following the Spanish elections at which the pro-American People's Party government was defeated, Latham sparked a new controversy by committing a Labor government to withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas. At that time, Australia had about 850 troops in Iraq, mostly involved in patrol work and in training members of the new Iraqi defence forces. Howard accused Latham of a "cut and run" approach and said "it’s not the Australian way not to stay the distance".
Until March 2004 Labor under Latham's leadership held a strong lead in national opinion polls. Latham's commitment to withdraw from Iraq caused a sharp drop in Labor's lead, but following the revelations of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison, Labor's lead increased again, suggesting that support for involvement in Iraq had declined, undermining Howard's position.
In June 2004, Labor's "troops home by Christmas" policy came under fire from U.S. President George W. Bush who, at a White House press conference during Howard's visit to Washington, described it as "disastrous". Bush's comments raised controversy in Australia over whether Bush was interfering in Australia's domestic political affairs, whether the election of a Latham government would endanger the U.S. alliance, and whether the comments were made with Howard's prior knowledge.
Shortly after, Latham announced the recruitment of Peter Garrett, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and former lead singer with the rock band Midnight Oil, as a Labor candidate in Kingsford Smith, a safe Sydney electorate being vacated by the retiring former minister Laurie Brereton. Garrett revealed that he had been approached by senior ALP figures including John Faulkner and Kim Beazley months before, and had taken this long to make up his mind.
Most commentators regarded his recruitment as a high-risk tactic, seeing the potential advantage to Labor of Garrett's popularity among young people as being offset by the possibility that his record of radical and anti-American statements in the past would offend moderate voters.
The second coup scored by Latham was the announcement that he would abolish the generous superannuation schemes available to members of parliament; his plan was quickly adopted by the Howard government in the face of a rising wave of public support.
Other announced policies and initiatives included: the introduction of federal government parenting classes for those parents deemed to be failing to adequately discipline their children; a ban on food and drink advertising during children's television viewing hours; the introduction of a national youth mentoring program; the government distribution of free story books to the families of newborn children; a federal ban on plastic shopping bags; and the introduction of legislation to prohibit vilification on the basis of religious beliefs or sexual orientation, similar to laws adopted in the state of Victoria that some critics said had led to a restriction of free speech. Some of these initiatives prompted Howard to criticise Latham as a "behavioural policeman".
In July 2004 Latham again became the centre of controversy when it was alleged on a commercial television network that he had punched a political rival during his time on Liverpool Council. Latham strongly denied the accusation. On 6 July, 2004, he called a press conference and denounced the government for maintaining what he called a "dirt unit," which he said was gathering personal material about him, including details of his first marriage. The government denied that any such unit existed, but some observers speculated that Liberal Party researchers had accumulated more potentially embarrassing material about Latham, which would be used during the election campaign (a threat which never eventuated), in addition to claims that Latham was an inexperienced economic manager.
Between March and August Latham's position in the opinion polls gradually declined, leading to renewed speculation that Howard would call an early election. During August, Labor claimed a tactical victory over the government on the issue of the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement and there were allegations in a Senate inquiry that Howard had lied about the "Children Overboard Affair" during the 2001 election campaign. By mid-August, Labor was again ahead in all three national opinion polls. On 18 August, however, Latham was admitted to a Sydney hospital, where he was diagnosed with pancreatitis.
The elections were held on 9 October, 2004. Although opinion polls showed the ALP leading the government at various stages of the six-week campaign, the government was re-elected with an increased majority. This was despite Latham being generally credited with a strong performance and a victory in the sole campaign debate. In the days after the election Latham was criticised for releasing many key policies too late, a case in point being Labor's policy regarding conservation of Tasmanian old growth forests.
Among those critical of Latham were journalists Tom Allard and Mark Metherell, who said "the flurry of releases meant Mr Latham went off message from Labor's core strengths of health and education." Labor's party president, Carmen Lawrence, blamed the unexpected severity of the defeat on an effective Coalition "scare campaign" focused on Latham's limited economic management experience, and the alleged threat of a rise in interest rates under Labor, which was not effectively countered, reportedly in an attempt by Tim Gartrell to conserve funds for later in the campaign (where, in previous years, Labor had been outspent by the Liberals).
Gartrell also apparently failed to anticipate the interest rates scare campaign (Latham Diaries, pp. 336-41, 372). The inability of his campaign to counter the Liberal campaign would later be cited by Latham himself, in the Latham Diaries, as a key reason for the election loss (Latham Diaries, pp. 336-41). Latham wrote that he had told his wife Janine that "I've tried to carry the whole show on my shoulders: my family, my community, my party. But now I'm stuffed. I have collapsed under the weight of those fucking ads." (Latham Diaries, p. 339) Michael Costello, a former chief of staff to Kim Beazley, said: "This is a complete train wreck. We now face at least two terms before we can win government again. We face at least three years with John Howard pretty much in control of the Senate."
On the morning of 8 October, the day before the election, a television crew filmed Latham and Howard shaking hands as they crossed paths outside an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio studio in Sydney. The footage showed Latham appearing to draw Howard towards him and tower over his shorter opponent. The incident received wide media coverage and, while Latham claimed to have been attempting to get revenge for Howard squeezing his wife's hand too hard at a press function, it was variously reported as being "aggressive", "bullying" and "intimidating" on the part of Latham. The Liberal Party campaign director, Brian Loughnane, later said this incident generated more feedback to Liberal headquarters than anything else during the six-week campaign, and that it "brought together all the doubts and hesitations that people had about Mark Latham". Latham disputes the impact of this incident, however, having described it as a "Tory gee-up: we got close to each other, sure, but otherwise it was a regulation man's handshake. It's silly to say it cost us votes - my numbers spiked in the last night of our polling." (Latham Diaries, p. 369) According to Latham's account of events, Latham came in close to Howard for the handshake to prevent Howard shaking with his arm rather than his wrist.
Latham became the first Labor opposition leader since Frank Tudor in 1917 to fail to make a net gain in seats from the government at his first election. Some commentators, including Kim Beazley, said Latham's leadership had rescued Labor from a much heavier defeat. Beazley said polling a year before the election indicated the ALP would lose "25-30 seats" in the House of Representatives. Instead the party lost a net four seats in the lower house, a swing of 0.21% and there was a 1.1% swing to the ALP in the Senate (see Australian federal election, 2004).
In December, after Latham was incorrectly reported to have blamed Labor's state premiers for the defeat, an unnamed Labor frontbencher predicted a leadership challenge within the next few months, saying Latham's supporters had lost confidence in him. Latham also had a heated public confrontation with the Labor deputy leader in the Senate, Stephen Conroy, renewing speculation there would be a challenge to Latham's leadership in the new year.
Latham was helped by the fact that there was no obvious successor to the leadership. The most likely candidates, Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Stephen Smith, accepted senior positions on Latham's frontbench and pledged loyalty to him. The leaders of the Socialist Left faction, and the centre-left under Martin Ferguson and Julia Gillard, also maintained their support for him. There was little support for a return to Beazley, and neither Tanner nor McMullan were seen as viable leadership candidates. In the longer run, however, many commentators doubted Latham would survive until the 2007 election after such a heavy defeat.
The final crisis for Latham's leadership erupted in the aftermath of the December tsunami. With both Latham and his deputy leader, Jenny Macklin, on leave, the acting opposition leader, Senator Chris Evans, issued statements in the aftermath of the tsunami. Latham was criticised for not issuing a statement as leader personally, particularly at a time when John Howard expressed national sympathy over the disaster, pledged $1 billion in aid to Indonesia and declared a national day of mourning. Latham rejected the criticism of his non-appearance after the tragedy, saying "none of my verbiage could make any practical difference - bring back the dead, reverse the waves, organise the relief effort". Macklin issued a statement on the disaster on 30 December before also choosing to take leave.
Several days later, Latham said he had been ordered to rest as a result of a recurrence of his pancreatitis. It was subsequently alleged that during the period of his illness he had been seen in a resort resting with his family. Latham's colleagues in turn became increasingly angry over his failure to communicate with them or to release a full statement about his health. Opinion polls in January showed a sharp decline in Latham's support and a preference for the return of Beazley as Labor leader.
Political journalist Mungo MacCallum wrote: "Latham became leader too early in his career, he lacked the skills needed to deal with the webs of intrigue within his own party, he refused to massage the media and the advisers he did listen to were out of their depth against Howard's praetorian guard. But he had many qualities that were not only desirable and attractive but are in short supply in today's ALP. In other circumstances he could have developed into a formidable leader, even prime minister. As it is, he remains one of the great what-ifs."
Of his election loss, Latham wrote: "I had my shot at being prime minister. It didn't work out on several fronts. But life goes on, potentially in a splendid way, spending so much time with my family. After suffering testicular cancer, the greatest gift in my life has been the ability to have children with Janine. I would be a fool to waste it".
Soon after his retirement, Latham announced his decision to publish a selection of diary entries spanning almost a decade. Following a bidding war, it was announced that Melbourne University Press (MUP) would publish the Diaries in late September. MUP later awarded the exclusivity rights for extracts to News Ltd and the exclusivity for the first interview to the ABC television program Enough Rope, which was due to be broadcast at 9.30pm on Monday 19 September 2005.
Meanwhile, excerpts of the Diaries were published by The Australian from 15 September ahead of their publication in book form on Monday 19 September. The excerpts published include attacks by Latham on the ALP, his successor Beazley, frontbencher Rudd and former Labor prime ministers Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam
Due to the publicity the Diaries were now generating, the extensive amount of published extracts, and concerns that Latham had recorded other interviews, in particular with another ABC program, Lateline, Enough Rope pushed to have the interview broadcast four days early on Thursday 15 September at 8.30pm with a simultaneous broadcast on some ABC radio stations. However, when the time came to broadcast, the ABC announced that the interview would not be shown due to a legal injunction sought by News Limited (owner of The Australian), which had the rights to publish extracts from the Diaries. Reports on the night said any broadcast by the ABC was a breach of confidentiality between News and the book's publisher, MUP, the newspaper publisher having signed to an A$80,000 deal to publish excerpts of the book in the weekend newspapers. However, at 10.30pm, the ABC aired the Denton interview after the Supreme Court of New South Wales lifted the injunction. Justice Harry Palmer said the publication of large parts of the book in News Limited newspapers largely destroyed the value of the material. Due to the last-minute changes, the edition of ABC's Lateline program scheduled for 10.30pm featuring another interview with Latham (also subject to the short-lived injunction) was now aired the following night.
The Diaries represent a remarkable and unprecedented statement by a former leader of a major political party. In them Latham is scathing about Australia's political system: "It takes committed people ... and turns them into one-dimensional robots ... The only good news is that the public is on to them. The electorate has worked out the artificiality of it all. They can see through the spin doctors, the publicity stunts, the polling and the tricks of marginal-seat campaigning. This is why people now talk about politics with a cool anger. They have a clear feeling that the system is far from genuine. That the robots, in fact, are tin men". (The Latham Diaries, Melbourne University Press, 2005, pp 92-93.)
Latham gave his first public lecture since the release of the Diaries, titled "Ten Reasons Why Young Idealistic People Should Forget About Organised Politics", on 27 September 2005, at Melbourne University. The reserved-seating lecture was filled to capacity, an extraordinary occurrence. During the lecture he argued that organised politics is ineffective at achieving real social change, due to public apathy, the rise of conservatism and the inward-focused structure of the major parties, and instead encouraged youth to focus on more grassroots, community-based programs. He also claimed politics has a detrimental impact on health, happiness and family life, largely blaming the "arrogant" and "incompetent" media, as well as internal party struggles.
On 19 January 2006, Latham was eating with his two sons at a Hungry Jack's restaurant in Campbelltown, New South Wales when he was photographed by Ross Schultz, a photographer from The Daily Telegraph. Schultz alleged that Latham snatched the camera and smashed it, without destroying the electronic media that contained the photographs. It was reported that Latham called Schultz a paedophile, presumably because he thought Schultz had taken pictures of his sons. The Telegraph subsequently announced plans for upcoming publication of the photographic images in the following Saturday's edition and that it would be seeking $12,000 from Latham to replace the equipment. The following day, Latham appeared to drive towards a Channel 7 television cameraman at his Sydney home. The photographer was unhurt but Seven's head of news in Sydney, Chris Willis, said the footage clearly showed Latham's car veer toward the cameraman as he stood on the side of the road.
It was announced on 6 February 2006 that Latham had been charged with assault, malicious damage and theft, in relation to the January 19 incident. Latham did not appear in Campbelltown Local Court to face the charges, on 22 March, instead giving a lecture to political science students at the Australian National University. When asked by a student how he could blame everyone else but himself, Latham replied: "I'm sorry, I didn't come in here and expose myself as a miserable arsewipe". On 26 April, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Latham again chose not to appear in Campbelltown Local Court in relation to the January 19 incident. The case was adjourned to 24 May. On 6 June, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Latham escaped having a criminal conviction for malicious damage to the camera being used by Schultz recorded against him, but had been placed on a good behaviour bond for two years. After pleading guilty to malicious damage, he had the charges of assault and theft dropped. He was also required to pay $6,763.70 in compensation for the damaged camera.
Latham's seventh book, a collection of quotations titled A Conga Line of Suckholes, was released in late September 2006.
He commented on the 2007 federal election campaign with an article in the Australian Financial Review, in which he said Australia was having a "Seinfeld election, a show about nothing". Latham wrote that no matter which party won, Australia would have a conservative economic policy and a decentralised, productivity-based industrial relations system. Australian public life had reached the "zenith of policy convergence". "Many people in the Labor movement are expecting Labor in power to be far more progressive than its stated election promises. I expect a Labor administration to be even more timid, more conservative," he wrote.