Here is Crikey’s initial coverage on Mark Latham’s resignation which was sent to subscribers at 5.30pm after the 2.45pm announcement.
Our man in the press gallery, Hugo Kelly, sorts through Latham’s debris:
Mark Latham still doesn’t get it. Emerging from hiding sporting a new crew-cut and reading from a prepared statement at 2.45pm this afternoon, Iron Mark spat the dummy and resigned from Parliament, sledging the media on the way out and leaving the party Rudderless with two potential leaders out of the country and a lame duck deputy holding the reins.
Could he have come up with an extra trick to mess things up any more? With Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard stranded in Asia, Kim Beazley filled the vacuum with gusto, announcing his candidacy at 4pm AEST from Perth whilst Rudd simultaneously spoke to the ABC’s Rafael Epstein in Jakarta and simply ummed and ahhed about consulting colleagues and then making a decision. It might have been better to say nothing.
The reaction is already pouring in. Jenny Macklin has declared she wants to remain deputy leader and Gough Whitlam has called it a tragedy and says he’ll always hold the lad in high regard.
But this goodwill didn’t stop Latham blaming the media for his decision to try and hide his latest bout of illness: “When I was hospitalised in August the media frenzy was over the top, with photographers shooting through my hospital window. Accordingly, I have done everything I could to keep subsequent episodes as private as possible.”
Mark, you were the alternative PM. Trying to keep a serious illness secret is just dumb politics.
And: “Unfortunately ever since the recent bout became known, and even though I was on annual leave, the media has been harassing people in our street, forcing our neighbours to call the police on several occasions. Obviously this situation cannot continue.”
With a more mature politician at the helm, Labor can at least look forward to some stability. Although there was a touch of the Lathams about Beazley’s pronouncement in his media conference this afternoon that: “I’m in the prime of my personal life and my political life…and my health is good.”
Beazley was certainly charitable to Latham saying he was very bright and he grew to like him on the campaign trail last year whilst Defence spokesman.
He was keen to stress his own good health and that he is currently one year younger than when John Howard became PM. Caucus members hoping for a promotion in return for a vote were given a blunt “no deals” message from Beazley who did waffle on for almost half an hour but was reasonably convincing in his claims to have “balance” and “a proven record”.
With Beazley odds-on to take the leadership, the question of the deputy’s job becomes significant. Julia Gillard already had an aborted crack at the job last year. If she gets it this time, she will be in pole position to take over from Beazley when he loses gracefully in 2007.
But don’t expect Rudd, Stephen Smith, Lindsay Tanner or Wayne Swan to take Gillard’s ambition lying down.
“Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it”? Er… Not quite. It’s somewhere else in Shakespeare – but first, some quick ruminations.
It’s logical to compare Mark Latham with John Hewson. Logical but incorrect. Hewson didn’t go to his political death with much grace, either – but at least he knew that you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Fightback! may have been a political failure – but it was an unarguable statement of political belief.
Mark Latham the backbencher seemed to have so many ideas. So did Mark Latham the shadow treasurer. New ideas. Different ideas. Good ideas.
Mark Latham, Labor leader, had flashes of brilliance – the reform of parliamentary superannuation and the final shape of the US Free Trade Agreement were both sound policy – but failed to present a convincing or coherent alternative at the October election. Since then he has simply been clueless.
Which leads us to the epitaph. Shakespeare, Henry V, the Duke of Bourbon at Agincourt: “Shame and eternal shame, nothing but shame”.
Mark Latham’s leadership may be over, but one thing that’s already clear is the media’s lack of any historical perspective.
It’s only very recently that we had an inexperienced and unconventional opposition leader who unexpectedly went backwards at his first election, and faced the wrath of his party as a result. It was less than 12 years ago – surely it’s possible there are some lessons to be learnt from that experience?
He was, of course, John Hewson, and despite some obvious differences his similarities with Mark Latham are quite striking: both surprise elevations to the leadership from shadow treasurer; both young and daring (some would say presumptuous); both intelligent and serious about policy to a degree unusual in modern politics.
Like Hewson, Latham represented a gamble that only success could justify. Hewson survived for more than a year after his election loss, but he was fatally damaged and his execution was always just a matter of time. For most of that year, the Liberal Party’s prospects looked every bit as hopeless as the ALP’s do today.
When Hewson finally fell, the Liberal Party anointed Alexander Downer, with results that most readers will remember. His reign lasted eight months, and when the embarrassment become too much to bear the Party turned instead to the veteran John Howard. The rest, as they say, is history.
But the moral of the story is equivocal. One might conclude from it that the older generation is the safe bet, and that Labor therefore would be best advised to bring back Kim Beazley now, rather than endure its own “Downer interlude” in the shape of, say, Kevin Rudd. On the other hand, the Liberals’ experience shows that a “Downer interlude” is not necessarily fatal. If it fails, there is still time to make a second change, and do so successfully. And it might not fail – even Rudd’s worst enemy would surely admit he has his advantages over Alexander Downer.
Indeed, the experiment may be a necessary ingredient in the ultimate success. Not only did Downer make Howard look good by comparison, but without that experience Howard could never have taken over with such a consensus of support. He would have remained a divisive figure, just as Beazley is in today’s Labor Party.
More important than who takes the leadership, though, is what they do with it. After John Hewson, the Liberal Party turned its back on intellectual rigor, indeed on policy seriousness in general. Its subsequent success has confirmed it, and many observers, in the view that those things are unnecessary handicaps. It will be a sad day if the ALP learns the same depressing lesson.