Yesterday Mark Latham ducked, weaved – and got knocked out cold by the Golden Tonsils.

What a week in federal politics. More blood than in Kill Bill.
More blood than in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hell, there’s more
blood even than in Reine Margot.

And not just on the floor
of the House of Representatives. Tough guy Mark “Iron Bark” Latham was
dragged from the 2UE studio in Parliament House and given an urgent
transfusion after suffering a mauling from Paul Keating’s old pal, the
Golden Tonsils – as minions cleaned his vital bodily fluids off the
walls.

There’s perhaps too much focus on Question Time.
Iron Bark’s interview with Laws was scarcely his finest moment and
deserves more attention.

Iron Bark, quite simply, wouldn’t
or couldn’t answer Laws’ questions on Iraq. Instead, he tried to make
up with some pathetic brown-nosing. Look how it ended up:

LAWS: Mark. Mark, I’ve got exactly 30 seconds left. But let me say, you know, and I’m only a disc jockey. But let me say…

LATHAM: You’re more than that.

LAWS:
Yeah well let me say this to you. You don’t want to get blustering
people like me, because the people who listen to it don’t like it.
Talking over the top of me all the time achieves nothing for you. I
mean I’d rather just get the answers. You might like to keep that in
mind…

Yowsers! John Laws sounding as threatening as Travis Bickle? “You lookin’ at me?” That’s what it sounded like.

And to think that we believed Iron Bark could beat any taxi driver.

Here’s how the whole sorry episode unfolded – how as Laws pressed, things got messier and messier:

LAWS: Mark, good morning.

LATHAM: G’day John. How are you doing?

LAWS: I’m pretty well. How are you?

LATHAM: Good. Very well, thanks.

LAWS: Have you been caught out a bit on this?

LATHAM:
No, no. The Government has been saying through Alexander Downer last
week I hadn’t received any information from Defence or Foreign Affairs
officials about Iraq.

LAWS: Yeah.

LATHAM: And
when asked at a press conference, I outlined the fact that I had. And
then the Prime Minister went over the top in the Parliament by outing
one of our intelligence agencies and if you like, recklessly
compromising national security information. The war against terror is
an intelligence war and we shouldn’t be saying too much about the role
of our intelligence agencies in relation to Iraq. But the Prime
Minister did that. And I have now given a truthful account of what
happened at those briefings and the conclusions that I drew from them.

LAWS: Were those briefings only related to Iraq?

LATHAM:
Well they were about the role of ASIS, the overseas intelligence
agency, and also Defence intelligence. And the Defence intelligence one
started with an outline of what happens with Defence intelligence, and
then naturally, because you don’t want to talk about these things in
theory, and you never do, you talk about the practice of it…

LAWS: Okay, so…

LATHAM:
And the one big international issue and place you want to talk about is
Iraq. So then we got into the discussion about the use of Defence
intelligence backing the Australian Defence Forces, and then of course
the question of weapons of mass destruction.

LAWS: Okay, but in answer to the question – were the briefings, as there was more than one, only about Iraq? The answer is no.

LATHAM:
Well no, they were about background information, but that was never the
Government’s suggestion. They never said that I’ve had this, that or
the other briefing. They were saying I’d had no information from
Foreign Affairs or Defence in relation to Iraq. And I knew that wasn’t
true, but I allowed Alexander Downer to run away with it, knowing that
if I came out and said listen I’ve had briefings from ASIS in relation
to Iraq and Defence intelligence, that wouldn’t be the right thing for
an Opposition Leader to do. It would be telling the world too much of
our confidential and sensitive matters of national intelligence and
security. And it was wrong for the Prime Minister to come out and out
those agencies, ASIS in particular. It’s a reckless thing that can only
add to the risk of Australians in Iraq, both civilian and military. So
the Prime Minister unhappily, yet again after the Keelty affair, has
been caught out playing politics with our national security for a
second time in three weeks.

LAWS: But they tabled letters
from those bureaucrats, so they accepted you’d had briefings, but did
they give you enough detail on Iraq?

LATHAM: Well the one
from Mr Bonighton, the meeting went for over an hour. I’ve told you how
it started, and when we got into the question of weapons of mass
destruction, which has always been the big issue in Iraq, I mean it’s
the big, burning issue for 18 months, I walked away with five
conclusions. One was that no weapons of mass destruction would be found
in Iraq. There were detailed reasons why the pre-war intelligence was
just plain wrong. I got a full understanding of how the Government had
made the wrong decision in going to war in Iraq (inaudible) weapons of
mass destruction…

LAWS: Yeah, but you would have thought that before you went into the meeting.

LATHAM:
Well, but Labor had a policy to get the troops out as soon as possible
and I concluded out of the meeting that the Australian policy in Iraq
was a farce.

LAWS: A fiasco, yeah.

LATHAM: A
fiasco. And we needed to get out as soon as possible. So if the
Government is suggesting that Labor having had a policy stance and then
me receiving a briefing as Opposition Leader that confirmed our policy
stance, that we’re supposed to actually change and go down the wrong
path, well that’s ludicrous. The briefing in my mind confirmed the
correctness of where Labor was headed in terms of our policy. And
that’s a good thing about a briefing, where you get the information and
if it confirms you’re doing the right thing, well John you keep on
doing the right thing.

LAWS: Has Simon Crean contradicted you by saying the nominated deadline was only parts of the policy?

LATHAM:
Well you could only have a specific deadline once you got into the
election year and get a sense of when the election would be held. Labor
had been saying get the troops home as soon as possible, but of course
how do you spell that out in 2004? We can’t do it until we get into
Government, and it’s clear from what the Prime Minister said, we’ll
have an election later in the year, and it’s reasonable then for Labor
to start talking about Christmas as our intention for bringing the
troops home. So Simon really is just spelling out the reality of how
you develop these exit strategies and work out timelines after a change
of Government.

LAWS: Given we’ve only got 800 troops there
and they’re 800 very important lives admittedly, but do you think
you’ve let this issue run a little bit out of control?

LATHAM:
No, I don’t think anyone is surprised that Labor, which opposed the war
in the first place and saw its critique of the war confirmed when we
all know there is no weapons of mass destruction, that we would want
our troops home as soon as possible. We’ve said that consistently. And
our bigger priorities are for the defence of Australia and the real war
against terror, because we said all along that if you took all the
money, the time and the effort, the resources, that were put into the
war in Iraq and you actually used those to catch bin Laden, break up
the terrorist network, smash JI in south-east Asia, destroy al Qaeda,
the world would be a safer place for that.

LAWS: Sure would.

LATHAM:
So we always said that the real war against terror involves those
things, rather than a war against the nation state in Iraq for a
purpose that wasn’t true, and that’s what unhappily has come to pass.

LAWS: Okay. When did you actually decide that the troops should come home by Christmas?

LATHAM: Well I announced that last week.

LAWS: No, when did you decide it?

LATHAM:
Well I announced it last week. Labor had Shadow Cabinet decisions. The
Prime Minister said I was inventing this, and in the Parliament he was
proven wrong yesterday, and I hope he withdraws the allegation today.
He said oh Labor has never had any decisions to get the troops home as
soon as possible. I pulled out three Shadow Cabinet decisions and a
Labor Caucus decision, and I thought the time was right last week to
firm up what that would mean in practice. And the other news we’ve got
is that Iraq mid-year is moving to a new sovereign government. Kevin
Rudd said in November that that was the time to start up an appropriate
exit strategy.

LAWS: Okay. Can I…

LATHAM:
So (inaudible) is coming through, all the things come together, and
Labor’s policy firms up to have the troops home by Christmas.

LAWS:
When did Shadow Cabinet approve your decision? What was the date that
the Shadow Cabinet… You had a meeting with the Shadow Cabinet and
they approved that decision. When? What date?

LATHAM: Well I gave the dates in Parliament (line drops out).

LAWS:
Lost you. Yep, lost you. Okay, we’ll see if we can find Mr Latham again
in a moment. Maybe he’s just looking for the dates…

We have Mr Latham back.

LATHAM: Yeah John, that’s better than the sounds of silence. You just cut right out.

LAWS: Well it is the sounds of silence. So, what was the date that you made the decision with your Shadow Cabinet?

LATHAM:
I’ve given the answer to that. The consultation process and the
timeline within our own processes. But you know, we do these things for
the right reason. We make our intention publicly clear.

LAWS: Yeah, but you didn’t give me the answer to it though Mark.

LATHAM:
No, well I’ve given the outline that the Prime Minister is saying we
didn’t have any Shadow Cabinet decisions. I revealed those yesterday,
and in consultation with the relevant Shadow Ministers, we firmed up
our policy last week. So the Australian people have got the right to
know where Labor stands on this issue, and that’s good.

LAWS: Okay.

LATHAM:
The Government seems to have a couple of strategies for how we deal
with the troops in Iraq. It depends which Minister you listen to. But
we’ve got one policy and I put it out clearly last week.

LAWS: Okay. But just remind us. We might have forgotten what the date was that you had that Shadow Cabinet meeting.

LATHAM:
Those dates provided in the Parliament, there were two in March and one
in May last year, where Labor resolved to get the troops home as soon
as possible. So our position was clear. Kevin Rudd in November outlined
the appropriate tipping point, where you develop an exit strategy out
of Iraq, and I thought with the news firming up of a new interim
government there taking over in the middle of the year, it was
appropriate to set out in greater detail what this would mean in
practical terms through the course of 2004.

LAWS: Yeah. Mark, have you forgotten the date?

LATHAM: No, I haven’t forgotten the date. I’ve just given you the dates.

LAWS: Well you didn’t give me the date. What day of the week was it that you made the decision with your Shadow Cabinet?

LATHAM:
Well the Shadow Cabinet, and Simon Crean was the leader at the time,
made three decisions last year, all detailed out in the parliamentary
record (inaudible) get the troops as soon as possible.

LAWS: When did they agree… when did they agree that you should have the troops back by Christmas?

LATHAM: Well the decision was made last year to have them back as soon as possible.

LAWS: Yes, but…

LATHAM: (inaudible) go and reinvent the wheel if the decision is to get them back…
LAWS:
I’m asking a fairly simple question. You decided that they would come
home at Christmas. You said that to my colleague and friend Mike
Carlton. Did you make that decision that morning? Did you have a
Cabinet meeting that morning?

LATHAM: No, John I’ve
outlined the decisions, the three decisions of the Shadow Cabinet last
year that said we wanted the troops back as soon as possible, and the
statements by Shadow Minister Kevin Rudd in November, and the timeline
that I’ve firmed up through the course of 2004. And that’s how you make
policy. I mean you don’t have to…

LAWS: No, no, but…

LATHAM:
You don’t have big meetings and deliberations about every dotting of
the “I” or the crossing of the “T”. Labor’s policy direction was clear.
It’s not surprising. We opposed the war in the first place.

LAWS: So you did…

LATHAM: (inaudible) been confirmed.

LAWS: So you didn’t have a Shadow Cabinet meeting?

LATHAM: We had three last year that said that Labor wanted to get…

LAWS:
I’m talking about when you made the decision about Christmas. Did you
have a Shadow Cabinet meeting in relation to the troops being back by
Christmas?

LATHAM: I had consultation with the relevant Shadow Ministers, and that’s how you do things.

LAWS: I see.

LATHAM:
Based on three – not one, two – but three Shadow Cabinet decisions that
set out the policy direction. So once you’ve got your principles right,
you don’t have to have an endless series of meetings. You just firm
them up in consultation with colleagues.

LAWS: Okay, but…

LATHAM:
(inaudible) give that policy decision meaning and communicate it
clearly to the Australian people, which is what I did…

LAWS: I’ve got to hurry because of the time.

LATHAM: … a number of statements last week.

LAWS:
Let me say a couple of things to you. Firstly, it’s a simple question
and you’re avoiding the question. Yes or no – did you have a Shadow
Cabinet meeting? We can only conclude no, you didn’t.

LATHAM: No, I’ve given you the answer. We had three. We had three that made the decision…

LAWS: But not on the day that you made the decision about them coming home by Christmas time.

LATHAM:
Well, but John, John, John. Three decisions to say get them home as
soon as possible. What does that mean in practical terms in 2004, if
there is an election in September, Labor has got the chance to have
them home by Christmas. It flows logically from the three principle
decisions…

LAWS: I’ve got to…

LATHAM: The Prime Minister was saying there were no meetings and he had egg on his face yesterday when I….

LAWS: Mark. Mark, I’ve got exactly 30 seconds left. But let me say, you know, and I’m only a disc jockey. But let me say…

LATHAM: You’re more than that.

LAWS:
Yeah well let me say this to you. You don’t want to get blustering
people like me, because the people who listen to it don’t like it.
Talking over the top of me all the time achieves nothing for you. I
mean I’d rather just get the answers. You might like to keep that in
mind.

LATHAM: Well I’ve tried to give the answers John,
as straight as I can. And you’ve asked the questions and I’m trying to
give the answers.

LAWS: Okay, well we didn’t get the answer we wanted and we can only conclude what that answer might be.

(Laws
rips off his toupee, reveals hair shaved into a Mohawk, pistols
suddenly appear in his hands, shot out from spring-loaded holsters
concealed under his jacket sleeves and starts shooting…)

Not
quite. The Golden Tonsils did something crueller to Iron Bark. He held
a phone in poll, asking listeners if they believed the Opposition
Leader.

More than 4,000 people, he later said, called in.
Twenty eight per cent thought Iron Bark was telling the truth. Seventy
two per cent didn’t.

Iron Bark got another transfusion. It wasn’t just a bloody day yesterday in Iraq.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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