The Latham Diaries will long be remembered as one of the greatest mongrel acts in Labor Party history. Equally, it will also go down as one of the most dramatic insights into the culture and inner workings of Australia’s most dominant political party.

One person who was spared a skewering in the Diaries was Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, Latham’s best mate during their time in Parliament together.

Any suggestion that the two are still even remotely close disappeared in The AFR today when Latham opened his regular column with the following:

His laughter came rollicking through the telephone, a man revelling in the discomfort of a parliamentary colleague. It was mid-May 2005, the caller Joel Fitzgibbon, then the assistant treasurer and now Kevin Rudd’s Minister for Defence.

“Mate,” he said, the gleeful timbre in his voice giving him a youthful, even schoolboyish sound, “Swannie’s frozen. He’s so nervous he couldn’t do the MPI on Wednesday (the Matter of Public Importance debate in Parliament). He told the tactics committee he was too busy, so I got to do it instead. The press gallery can’t believe it. The day after the budget and a chance for the shadow treasurer to go on the attack with a big speech and Swannie was hiding in his office, shaking like a leaf. They are all asking me, where’s Wayne?”

Anyone with a faint interest in Labor’s tradition of loyalty and mateship will no doubt condemn Latham for this latest act of bastardry against his former best mate.

However, it does say something about Fitzgibbon’s judgment that he was still giving Latham such ammunition when he knew the explosive Diaries were in the pipeline, albeit still three months away at the time of that call.

And this at a time just as the media are suggesting the former Hunter Valley motor mechanic, who inherited his seat from the old man, is performing surprisingly well as Defence Minister.

The Latham Diaries are well worth another read now that many of the central characters are in positions of great power. Latham argued that machine men such as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Treasurer Wayne Swan struggle when it comes to the great policy ideas. They have grown up as factional wheeler dealers used to dispensing power in the backroom, not mastering complex briefs and then winning the public debate.

On this score, it looks like Latham might be right.

Mark Day’s column in The Australian on March 13 was very interesting when he said of Conroy:

He’s giving a good impression of a minister not up to speed with the issues facing him, bumbling and stumbling, achieving nothing.

Ditto for the Treasurer. Latham’s column will haunt Swan for months. He’ll no doubt be able to read the budget speech, but if he can’t handle the tough media questions and Parliamentary attacks afterwards, then he may forever be regarded as the machine man who got promoted beyond his station in life.

Peter Fray

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