Crikey correspondents have been giving Mark Latham a fearful lashing in recent days as the following items from our subscriber emails demonstrate. It really is hard to believe out little website produced this editorial endorsing Iron Mark just a few short months ago.

Crisis management? What crisis management?

Hugo Kelly returns from his holiday at Yarraville Beach to write (subscriber email Jaunary 13):

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

Whether Mark Latham decides to battle on till the end, stand down, retain the leadership via remote control from a Swiss clinic, or move his office to Terrigal, his impending political demise boils down to bad judgement.

Bad judgement, misplaced paranoia and missed opportunities.

Latham was offered a golden opportunity to defuse this issue very early, but either he, or his chief flak Glenn Byres, fumbled it.

Even if his office went into wind-down mode over the New Year, unmoved by the unfolding crisis in the region, a pesky Sunday newspaper journalist gave Latham the chance to set the record straight about his illness before the prognosis on his leadership became terminal.

Labor sources tell us that the reporter had been sounding out opinions within the party in the week following the tsunami about Latham’s thundering silence. This prompted a call from Glenn Byres asking who the journalist had talked to – and who had been critical of his boss. Did Byrnes mention that the boss had been ill? Apparently not. To be charitable, perhaps his paranoid focus on who’d been criticising Latham obscured his focus.

With the next day’s paper dominated by tsunami news, the story didn’t get a run. But the reporter’s calls obviously stirred up the somnolent possums within Labor and alerted government people to a delicious political opportunity waiting to be had.

What this says is that unless Byres didn’t report back to Latham, the leader would have been fully aware by Saturday night that his lack of response to the tragedy had been noted by people in the party and would appear as a critical story on the Sunday.

You would have thought that when the yarn didn’t make it into print on Sunday, he would have thanked his lucky stars and whipped out a statement to gazump anything else. But no. He missed that opportunity too, and by Wednesday the media pack was camped outside his doorstep and the issue was out of control.

Less paranoia, more common sense. That’s the recipe for the next Labor leader.

Media hypocrisy in flogging Latham

A Latham luvvie writes in the January 12 subscriber email:

The papers all agree – Mark Latham should have broken his holiday to say something, anything, about the Asian tsunami.

Just what this would have done to help the relief effort or ease the suffering no one is quite sure, but that’s beside the point – the story was so big, so enormous, so all consuming, Mr Latham had to break his holiday and say something.

Just like all their reporters did, for example.

What’s that you say? Most of the reporters are on holiday and couldn’t be bothered breaking their leave to report on the disaster?

Surely not! I mean, it would be hypocritical wouldn’t it for the Daily Telegraph to berate Mr Latham for not breaking his holiday while its chief political reporter Malcolm Farr hasn’t filed since before Christmas? And surely the Australian wouldn’t be so crass as to attack a sick politician for being missing in action while failing to recall Dennis Shanahan from his holiday? And the ABC wouldn’t dare mention Latham’s absence while Kerry O’Brien and Jim Middleton continue to enjoy their break and Lateline doesn’t even appear on our screens?

CRIKEY: This is a convenient and partly justifiable counter-attack but none of these media people are putting themselves up as the alternative Prime Minister. When you consider that Bush and Blair also copped plenty of grief for staying on leave for too long, it is not unreasonable to expect Latham to cop the same. Then you have the whole question of telling the truth and basic communication with your colleagues which is another matter altogether.

Latham speaks – on Friday

From the January 11 subscriber email

Mark Latham’s office rushed out a media release early this afternoon announcing that Iron Mark will finally release a statement – on Friday.

Seems all that sun and fun at his mate’s pricey Terrigal resort might have done the trick. But a word of advice to the office: when you’re sending out a media release it’s best to put the recipients in the BCC field, otherwise you reveal to all and sundry who’s on your mailing list.

For the record, this is Labor’s latest word on their ailing leader:

From: Mark Latham’s office
To: a whole bunch of media and political types whose email addresses we have deleted to protect their privacy
Subject: FW: Chris Evans – Media Release – RE Mark Latham– 11 January 2005
Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 12:00:05 +1100

Senator Chris Evans
Acting Federal Labor Leader
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
Shadow Minister for Social Security

I have spoken to Labor Leader Mark Latham this morning. Mark has now received the results of further medical tests regarding his pancreatitis. He will now discuss these results with his family and doctors, and will make a statement on his health by Friday.

CRIKEY: This has naturally set off all sorts of speculation that Iron Mark is about to pull the plug. It might just be out of the leadership but stackers in Werriwa are also watching with interest.

Latham’s dilemma: which lie did I tell?
From the January 11 subscriber email

A curious press gallery operative writes:

We asked on Sunday: “It’s hard to see how someone in the ALP leadership hasn’t deliberately misled the public over the past few days.”

As the days go by, it’s getting hard to avoid the conclusion that there are people in the Labor hierarchy – from Mark Latham down – who still don’t understand that telling the truth is a pragmatic step as much as a moral one.

Today’s revelation that, far from being bedridden with his pancreatitis, Latham has been enjoying a family holiday in Terrigal, is a textbook example of media management failure 101.

Surrounding himself with spin doctors may prove to have been Latham’s biggest mistake. Especially spin doctors who clearly don’t watch West Wing.

We are reminded of West Wing president Bartlett’s battle with MS during the show’s second season. The White House counsel muses that if news of the president’s health had been successfully massaged, so that no-one has ever actually done anything wrong, then that in itself would be proof of a conspiracy.

The strategy decision to keep Latham out of the media over January has been mishandled as events changed circumstances. And now they won’t stop digging the hole they’re in.

The chain of events has been blithely slippery:

  • Kevin Rudd point blank refusing to say whether he knew Latham was ill, even though he said he’d been in contact with him over the tsunami response in recent days;
  • Acting leader Chris Evans flubbing his way through a press conference giving the impression he was in contact with the leader all along. Then, yesterday, conceding he hadn’t spoken with him at all;
  • The decision to suppress news of the re-occurrence of Latham’s illness. Then, misleading the public by claiming he was recuperating at home.

The question is, which lie do you want to believe?

From the January 10 subscriber email

To paraphrase a certain comment made by a certain Labor figure about a certain Liberal leader, if the answer is Chris Evans, then it was a bl**dy stupid question.

Mark Latham is missing today’s tsunami briefing because of illness. Pancreatis can be excruciating – and sometimes the causes are impossible to diagnose – and we hope he recovers soon. Physically. You might as well get in early and order the floral tributes for his leadership now.

Latham and his deputy Jenny Macklin are has beens. Their staff are utterly gormless. And the idea of making someone virtually no-one’s ever heard of Senate Leader was always going to end in tears before bedtime.

True or not, fair or not, Latham and his staff have created a situation where it looks as if he played coy about his illness to hide any signs of weakness and protect his leadership.

Poor dumb b*stard. The spin-doctors were already despairing of it long before the pancreatis returned.

The ubiquitous “senior party sources” quoted in reports last week all made comments along the lines of “no-one’s going to kick a bloke when he’s down”. They could have added “and while we’re all on holidays”. The leadership challenge if now a matter of when, not if.

Wayne Swan is out of the running. Full stop. It’s amazing that no one’s wheeled out the allegations made at the time of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into quaint Queensland Labor Party customs. Presumably the Government dirt unit has been saving them up.

So, who’s it to be. Kimbo? Kruddy? Beazley is known, liked and respected. Rudd is respected – and his profile is growing and growing and growing. Beazley, however, has had two shots at the top job and seems to save his best performances for defeats.

How about both? How about this for a leadership ticket – Rudd as number one and Beazley as deputy? A promising new bloke backed by experienced and wise counsel – a former deputy PM, in fact.

The Emily’s Listers might whinge, but the words “Joan Kirner” and “political expediency” don’t go hand in hand. And the beauty about putting a veteran like Beazley in at number two is that when a strong contender for the deputy’s job – male or female – emerged it would be easy to do a shift. No one would be surprised. The old warhorse would retire with honour.

Newspoll turns seriously bad for Labor

From the January 9 subscriber email

By Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson

For the last month or so I’ve been pointing out that the Newspoll results in The Australian, contrary to what you might think from reading the paper’s commentary, have been surprisingly good for Labor. Howard’s honeymoon and Latham’s troubles didn’t seem to be showing up much in the poll numbers.

The exception was a state one, three weeks ago in Western Australia, which showed the opposition streets ahead. I said then (Crikey 20 December) that “we are entitled to wait for better evidence than just one Newspoll.”

Well, now we’ve got it. Two new Newspolls, on successive days: Friday in New South Wales, and Saturday in Victoria. (Oddly, I can’t find either of them on The Australian’s website.) They’re both truly disastrous for Labor.

In NSW, the Carr government, plagued by problems with transport, hospitals and corruption scandals, is shown to be behind its Coalition opponents 54% to 46%, two-party-preferred. That’s a swing of about 10 per cent since the last election.

The Bracks government in Victoria, incompetent but less scandal-prone, is doing better, but it too is behind for the first time, 51% to 49%. That’s a swing of about 9 per cent.

Those are horrible numbers. And no-one should say that they’re impossible: remember 2001 in Queensland, when Newspoll correctly forecast a 10% swing to Labor, despite general disbelief from psephologists (including this one).

But even so, the real message is not for the two state governments. Neither of them has to face the polls for a long time – November 2006 in Victoria, March 2007 in New South Wales. They will have to smarten up their act, but they have plenty of time in which to do it, and for the weaknesses of their opponents to become apparent.

The man with the real problem is Mark Latham, who has no such luxury. If Labor is this badly on the nose, his colleagues are unlikely to give him two months, much less two years. When things turn bad so rapidly in three different states, it’s a national problem.

There should be a new federal Newspoll coming up this week. If it’s bad for Labor – and it’s hard to imagine it being anything else – expect the momentum against Latham to become unstoppable.

Latham’s Labor pains

From the January 9 subscriber email

A canny Canberra observer reports from the Press Gallery:

When you’re wheeling Chris Evans out to speak as leader, you’ve got problems for a start. More seriously, it’s hard to see how someone in the ALP leadership hasn’t deliberately misled the public over the past few days.

And judging by Senator Evans’ and Kevin Rudd’s public statements over the past 24 hours, you get the feeling they don’t even see it as an issue.

Rudd point blank refused to say whether he knew Latham was ill – even though he said he’d been in contact with him in recent days over the tsunami response.

And Evans’ glib responses to journalists in his media conference on Thursday underlines the fact that Labor has dropped the ball. “The point is he was on leave anyway. I was acting Leader, but when there was some call for Mark to be publicly available we thought it best to release the information,” Evans breezily explained.

Labor should not have waited to be caught out. A simple statement 10 days ago when Latham was first confined to bed would have defused the whirlwind now blowing up about his leadership.

But Latham’s fixation on keeping “personal” matters private won over the need to be absolutely transparent. As it stands, Latham loses on the swings and the roundabouts. First he gets criticised for not issuing a personal statement of support for the tsunami victims; then he cops serious backwash for not coming clean on his illness.

Meanwhile, the PM bestrides the word looking every part the munificent global statesman. Back home, Evans and Rudd finally put out a media release out on Friday morning responding to the PM’s aid pledge of 24 hours earlier. Which doesn’t exactly smack of a party enjoying strong leadership, from anyone.

That statement and the Evans presser are up on the ALP website:

Maybe it’s perverse after a major election loss, but why wouldn’t Labor want to keep its A-team running through the silly season to wrong-foot the government? Unencumbered by work, some people are more likely to be watching TV news and reading newspapers, although the overall numbers are down. Similarly, the media is desperate for content and acting ministers are prone to stuff up.

While we wish Latham a quick recovery, the other point to be made is his predeliction for nice long holidays. Jenny Macklin’s first media release as acting leader was 20 December. Evans told the media the the original plan was for the great leader to return on Australia Day.

So he was taking six weeks leave, and not even returning to let his deputy head off in good conscience? Add this to the time he took off to regroup immediately after the election, and you have to ask the question: how much leave has Iron Mark been given in the past 12 months?

With that kind of work ethic – and a dodgy constitution certainly no fault of his own – it’s hard to see him lasting long in the top job once the vultures return to Parliament and the heat really goes on.

Latham’s leadership takes a turn for the worse

January 7 subscriber email

By political correspondent Christian Kerr

Pancreatitis rarely is terminal. Mark Latham’s leadership, however, is looking more and more that way.

Yesterday morning I got a call from a Labor staffer. It was after news of Latham’s illness had broken – but this individual was unaware the Opposition Leader was in hospital. By yesterday afternoon it emerged that most of Labor’s frontbench only learned of their leader’s condition through the media.

Illness is a private matter – but surely a one par statement from Latham leader would have been appropriate. After all, blurring the line between the private and the political has been one of his trademarks.

A monologue from his bed about how back in Green Valley, before Gough and Medibank came along, the neighbours used to come in with leeches because it was all they could afford and it’s the Austrayin way, Laurie, wasn’t called for – and, with any luck, Latham has learned that these sort of gestures don’t necessarily strike the intended chord.

Latham’s silence, however, has left us with one inescapable impression. The Opposition Leader is terrified of any sign of weakness.

Iron Mark, Biff – whatever you want to call him – has looked like the “before” picture in an old Charles Atlas ad in political terms since the election.

His actions, however, have suggested that he has been incapable of recognising this fact. Now, it looks as if he can’t be honest with himself or honest with his party.

PS Many thanks to the Crikey subscriber who let us know that they saw Kevin Rudd strolling along Sunshine Beach at Noosa Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps he thinks he’s John Curtin. Or – to keep up the Charles Atlas metaphor – is he just practising kicking sand in the face of weaklings?

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%