Mark Latham is the poltergeist of Australian politics. Unable to interact with the living but deeply angry about his political death, he resorts to breaking things and causing a racket in an effort to make his presence felt.

This deeply-troubled spirit was at it again last week, hurling things from the netherworld of the Fin Review’s op-ed pages. Normally the Fin is the place where plutocrats go when they die, and perhaps Latham’s fury can be partly explained by having to share a page with the likes of Michael Baume and John Roskam.

But last week he finally demonstrated some accuracy in his enraged hurling of objects. Hitherto, his aim hasn’t been that good. In his first effort, back during the election campaign, he lashed out at the entire Australian people, damning them as consumerist zombies who needed punitively high interest rates to purge them of their liking for shiny consumer durables and big houses.

More recently, he managed to target the whole Federal Parliament, attacking all MPs as venal, perk-obsessed shonks (Latham himself lives hand-to-mouth, surviving only on royalties from his diaries and his fortnightly AFR cheques). And he followed that up in February by targeting the NSW Labor Party.

But last week he actually managed to score a hit on Wayne Swan, including peddling some gossip about ex-friend Joel Fitzgibbon’s views about the then-shadow Treasurer from 2005.

Latham, you sense, is the sort of person who has two kinds of friends – ex, and soon-to-be ex.

Undoubtedly Latham is furious that Labor is in power. After actually going backwards under his leadership, Labor managed to find a leader who could do the job he so manifestly could not. That it was Kevin Rudd, for whom Latham holds a special contempt, would especially rankle. It is not enough that I succeed, Gore Vidal once said — others must fail. But oh what agony when that’s reversed.

But that isn’t what bugs Latham the most.

Upon leaving politics, Latham declared the entire system bankrupt. “It’s fundamentally sick and broken,” he declared in 2005. “Do something else,” he advised young people who wanted to achieve any real change in Australia. And as he argued in his election piece, choosing between Howard and Rudd was meaningless – there was no difference between the political parties.

In the interval, however, Kevin Rudd had attracted a massive following amongst young voters. Not to mention boy band-like hysteria among schoolkids. And GetUp – despite their Lattesippers From Central Casting views – had tapped a widespread determination to strengthen accountability and democratic participation.

There wasn’t much “public apathy” – Latham’s #1 reason for avoiding politics – last November.

How that must infuriate him. How it must stick in his craw, to see the very system that he turned his back on spark into life and, worse, change the country. No wonder he’s reduced to howling through the walls and pushing the furniture around, trying to upset those within the system.

Latham shares the Fin’s pages with another failed Opposition Leader in John Hewson. But Dr Hewson remains intellectually engaged with political, social and economic issues and offers a perspective that frequently deviates from, but remains respectful of, the party he once led. Latham’s gimmick is to pretend that he offers the ultimate political insider’s perspective, but one no longer fettered or filtered by any political calculation or personal bias.

Of course, it’s bullsh-t. Latham’s approach is of someone who got it profoundly wrong, about his party and about his country, but who continues to try to tell us he has been right all along.

Peter Fray

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