Former Labor leader Mark Latham has launched his new book. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts
Former Labor leader Mark Latham has launched his new book. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

The tragedy of Mark Latham

PAULINE Hanson is aware of her own mortality, according to adviser James Ashby who says Hanson hopes her eponymously-named party (PHON) will continue long after her demise.

But there's no retirement any time soon.

Today, at 64 - the age when most of her followers would be hanging up their steel-capped boots - the One Nation founder, Senator and constitutionally-mandated "leader for life" will serve out this term (ending in 2022) and, if elected, serve yet another (ending in 2028).

By then Hanson will be 74 - coincidentally the same age her idol, Donald Trump, will be when (or if) he completes his first (or only) term in 2021.

One name mooted as her successor, former federal Labor leader Mark Latham, might shock you. Then it again, it might not.

Latham - leader for just 13 months and architect of a campaign that saw Labor go backwards in seats and votes at the 2004 election - remains one of Australian politics' most controversial figures.

That's why he's probably best described in two words: enigma and tragedy.

Enigmatic because he remains a bubbling cauldron of internal contradictions; tragic because so much of his early promise is now wasted on petty culture wars and not on the big economic reform issues working class people really want to hear.

Mark Latham’s racial slurs against then Daily Telegraph sport reporter Jamie Pandaram.
Mark Latham’s racial slurs against then Daily Telegraph sport reporter Jamie Pandaram.

Latham, the quasi-intellectual whose economic treatises (Civilising Global Capital and From the Suburbs among them), took Labor's economic thinking to the next level.

While Gough Whitlam opened Labor's door to the middle classes, and Bob Hawke and Paul Keating entered the room of smaller government and big business, it took Mark Latham - a former Liverpool Mayor who championed fiscal responsibility - to inspire an aspirational working class to improve themselves via a "ladder of opportunity".

Depressed outer suburban communities would be transformed not through welfare dependency but through better education, urban renewal and small business policies.

It was heady stuff, and Latham was marked out for great things soon after his election to parliament in 1994 for the western Sydney "struggle street" seat of Werriwa, once held by his former mentor, Whitlam.

And so it came to pass. In late 2003, at 42, Latham became Labor's youngest federal leader in a century.

Moreover, Latham - succoured by Labor Party scholarships that lifted young Mark out of the poverty of outer Sydney's Green Valley - was a living, breathing example of 'third way' politics.

What could go wrong? Virtually everything. From "captain's calls" over policy to an aggressive demeanour to a lack of loyalty to those around him.

That's why, despite the predictions of many, Latham's role in PHON (or in David Leyonhjelm's Liberal Democrats, which he joined last year) will do little for the populist cause.

In short, Latham carries too much baggage.

First, there's his history with a mainstream political party - "just another politician", hard-core Hansonites will say - that paints Latham as yet another comfy "insider" playing an "outsider" vote-catching game. Second, his aggressive, often uncouth vernacular turns off all but the angriest of anti-elite blokes.

Third, there's a whiff of hypocrisy about Latham's entire schtick.

Where, on leaving parliament, Latham lamented the brutal "tribalism" of Australian politics, the former leader now embraces the savagery of the jungle.

Whether it's attacking vulnerable Australians who've suffered significant challenges - think Rosie Batty or Catherine McGregor - or using descriptions of sexuality as a term of abuse, Latham is no vote-magnet.

Mark Latham with alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. (Pic: Nathan Richter/Milo
Mark Latham with alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. (Pic: Nathan Richter/Milo

And that raises a key question: Why does Latham continue to damage his own brand?

Is it "relevance deprivation syndrome", or does he really believe free speech should include the right to get into the gutter with racist, sexist and homophobic verbal attacks?

Or maybe he just wants back on the gravy train of a safe Senate sinecure?

Yes, Mark Latham, falling from alternative prime minister to pugnacious public commentator, is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare: an Anglo Othello who saw his power and promise dissolve in a bile of hate and insecurity all of his own making.

Kinder critics might call Latham a Henry Chinaski - a poetic pub brawler (and creation of Charles Bukowski) but without Bukowski's detached cool. The unkind might label Latham a modern day Doc Evatt - the brilliant 1950s Labor leader who descended into paranoia and madness before our very eyes.

No, Pauline Hanson should steer clear of Mark Latham, just as the now-privileged Latham should reject the Hansons and the Leyonhjelms of this world and offer real outsiders - working class kids, impoverished migrants, brutalised women and indigenous Australians - a rung on that ladder of opportunity that served Latham so well.

Dr Paul Williams is a lecturer at Griffith University's Schools of Humanities, Languages and Social Science.