The literature of political psychology provides many case studies of successful leaders whose political personalities have been analysed to assist our understanding of the psychological basis of their performance and achievements in office. Usually they are prominent leaders on the national and international stage, whose tenure in the top job has been long and substantial and whose accomplishments (and limitations) are well known. But what of the political leaders who fall short of realising their potential, whose talents are undermined by problematic features of their psychological make-up? This paper is a case study of one such political figure, a recent Australian politician of uncommon gifts who had a rare opportunity to make his mark as a new generation leader of the nation. As the leader of the alternative government facing a conservative party coalition that had been in office for three consecutive three-year terms, Mark Latham was poised to become prime minister in a political climate dominated by a mood for change. But Latham failed to realise his promise and experienced a dramatic downfall and exit from political life. What lessons can be drawn from the study of such a leader?
Mark Latham was the leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the Australian parliament between December 2003 and January 2005; at age 42 he was the youngest leader of the ALP in a century and the most controversial in fifty years. As leader of the opposition, Latham led the left-of-centre ALP through the campaign for the national election in October 2004 against the coalition Liberal-National party government of John Howard. The most distinctive and promising Australian politician in many years — one with initial “middle-way” inclinations — Latham had a brief but spectacular period as leader. Seen as “the new sensation”, he was a working class boy from the western suburbs of Sydney who became a new generation Labor hero and his prime ministerial ambitions looked set to be realised. Many uncommitted Australian voters, who felt disenchanted with the blandness of what Latham called “whitebread politicians”, flocked to embrace his innovative rhetoric, his pitch to upwardly mobile “aspirationals”, and his political positioning as an outsider railing against elites and insiders of all kinds. Such were the expectations of Latham’s success that, in advance of the national election, political commentators were seriously entertaining the prospect of a Latham prime ministership, and he was dubbed “the prime minister-in-waiting”.
However, Labor and Latham were decisively rejected at the ballot box, following which he tumbled and fell from grace in January 2005 in a dramatic departure from the leadership and political life. Latham’s personality weaknesses and instability had conspired to ensure that his political promise was never realised and, as spectacularly as he had ascended, he tumbled and broke in a shock departure from public life after his failure to dent the electoral majority of the conservatives, and the loss of the support of his senior party colleagues. Latham had experienced a seriously debilitating bout of pancreatitis three months before the election and he cited health reasons for his sudden resignation. However, psychological factors played a major part in his political demise: although it was not publicly apparent at the time, Latham was progressively unravelling through 2004, and the personality issues that brought him down worsened the longer his leadership went on. This was a dynamic process that fed upon itself through 2004, as Latham’s paranoia begat mistrust of his colleagues and eventually with his staff and finally with everyone associated with his leadership. Latham’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities were later more fully revealed in his tell-all Diaries, published in September 2005, eight months after his departure (Latham, 2005a). The Latham Diaries are Latham’s contemporary record of his parliamentary life, especially his fourteen months in the Labor leadership.
In the book he savagely attacks his supporters and detractors alike, and angrily denounces the Labor party that had sustained him in various ways for almost twenty years. In advance of the book’s publication he had foreshadowed his approach in a letter to a Labor MP. The party caucus, he wrote — in a comment that was among the milder of the relentless and ferocious personal attacks to follow on his erstwhile Labor colleagues — was infested with “snakes, freaks, assholes and sewer rats”. When the book was subsequently published, a minister in a former Labor government described it as “the most rancorous and at times rancid memoir ever penned by an Australian politician” (Blewett, 2005). Virtually everyone on the Labor side associated with Latham’s leadership was critically mauled in the Diaries, as if his political downfall was precipitated entirely by the failings of others, rather than by anything he himself did or did not do.
Although he articulated certain “middle way” positions that suggested a balanced approach to politics, Latham’s inner world as expressed through the Diaries is one of grandiose ambition and paranoia, which ranges through the grandiosity of seeing himself as a prophet to the paranoia of a belief that he was “surrounded by assassins” and that “the arseholes are coming after me” (Latham, 2005a: 53, 78-79). “The barbarians are at the gates”, he writes, “coming inside my home, hurting the people I’m supposed to protect” (Latham: 2005a, 312). Latham’s fragile shell even figured in his resignation statement when he revealed the wounding intrusion he experienced when hospitalised with pancreatitis in August 2004: “The media frenzy was over the top”, he said, “with photographers shooting through my hospital window.” (A photographer had been in the street below, thirty metres away, using a telephoto lens.) The Diaries also reveal a vengeful Latham as he woundingly disparages his political colleagues, both supporters and critics alike.
As chief of staff to Mark Latham for the period from his caucus election as leader in December 2003 to the national election of October 2004, I had a front row seat from which to observe his behaviour at first hand, and to discern the strengths and weaknesses of a political persona that attracted excited devotion in many voters, and fear and loathing in others. While I was the most senior opposition staffer, I did not enjoy Latham’s confidence as his chief of staff, and was frequently subject to his adverse critical judgments, many of which were repeated in his Diaries. Our professional relationship, which was never close, limped along over some months, and finally broke down during the election campaign, when he effectively fired me. Readers should take that into account in assessing this paper.
This analysis of Mark Latham as leader of the Labor party is not that of a transient figure who briefly kept the seat warm during a difficult time for the ALP in opposition. It is an account of a highly talented Labor tyro who promised much but was brought down by tragic personality flaws that were exposed under pressure and precipitated his failures as leader. Through much of 2004 in the lead-up to the election, public opinion polls put the ALP in a potentially winning position. Latham was quickly seen as Labor’s saviour after three bruising electoral defeats and continued weak standing in the community. Although the polls showed his older conservative rival, John Howard, 64, as consistently preferred as prime minister over his younger opponent, Latham initially attracted high personal approval ratings and extraordinarily positive media coverage. Drawing inspiration from so-called “middle way” or “third way” strategies, Latham articulated novel political approaches and tactically outmanoeuvred the prime minister — and frequently surprised his unaware and unprepared colleagues — on key issues of public policy. For a time in the early months of his leadership in 2004, Latham executed a series of bravura performances of political gymnastics and — to the evident dismay of his rivals in government who several times failed to anticipate, much less counter, his aerial spin — momentarily seemed to have redefined the national playing field of political ideas.
An effective political performer in the bear-pit of the parliamentary chamber, Latham took the fight to the government in ways that greatly revived Labor party spirits, and engendered an excitement among voters that seriously rattled the prime minister. Indeed, Howard’s biographer has written that Latham’s early political ascendancy in 2004 — when he was “embraced by the media as the next prime minister” — was up till that time one of “only three bad moments” that Howard had experienced in his 30-year political career (Barnett, 2004).
Seen at its best, Latham’s leadership was beginning to reposition the ALP as a party of energy, ideas and youthful appeal (McGregor, 2004; Donovan, 2004; Duffy, 2004; Simons, 2004). A substantial part of that appeal was a novel way of talking to the voters about political issues, and with an Australian voice unusual in a leader. Frequently, political leaders would articulate political positions within the framework of somewhat abstract policy conceptions, usually communicated to a community that was less than fully engaged. Where Latham initially succeeded spectacularly well was in articulating political values derived from his own experience as an aspirational, outer-suburban working class family man, and thereby differentiating himself and Labor from his conservative opponents. Instead of worthy but arid policy formulations about economics, education and health care, for example, Latham talked in a distinctive vernacular — and with a characteristic Australian working class voice — from his own working class experience about a ladder of social opportunity, and with a focus on children and old people. To many people in the community, his language and speech had immediate political resonance and seemed like the early beginnings of an engaging new narrative about Australian experience and aspiration.
Latham seemed to have tapped into an emergent national mood in the political centre for a more hopeful style in politics, after a sense of hopelessness induced by the powerful ascendancy of John Howard — a friend and ally of US president George W Bush — and the seeming inability of previous Labor leaders to dent or chip it. There was an attraction to a new way of cutting through, a yearning among the public for a breath of fresh air, and a welcoming embrace for anything that felt like it. Latham’s “crazy-brave” style seemed to resonate with different demographics and his populist appeals to public emotion on key issues were seductive to many people, including in the media, grown tired of “me-too” politics and “more of the same”. After a period in the electoral doldrums for Labor, it seemed like an outsider oppositional leader and frustrated aspirational followers — potentially an election-winning alliance — had finally found one another.
These early successes, however, were tempered by residual voter concerns, particularly held by women, about Latham’s crude and aggressive personal style, a style that had earned him the parliamentary nickname, “Biff”. His crudity, in part, reflected his stated belief that “for the establishment, civility is a way of preserving the social pecking order”. Consistent with that approach, Latham had once publicly referred to prime minister Howard as an “arse-licker”, described a conservative woman journalist during parliamentary debate as a “skanky ho”, and characterised his conservative opponents in the Howard cabinet as “a conga line of suckholes” for their supportive attitude to the Bush administration, particularly over foreign policy and the war in Iraq. In a magazine interview in 2002, he described his approach to politics more broadly: I’m a hater. Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness. I hate the way, for instance, Howard tries to appeal to suburban values when I know that he hasn’t got any real answers to the problems and challenges we face. I hate the phoniness of that. (McKew, 2002)
Despite early gains during his media honeymoon and a later electoral campaign that at times looked highly promising for Labor, the October 2004 election was a triumph for the Howard government, which was returned with an increased majority in the lower house and a majority in the upper house for the first time in many years. Post-election opinion polls and media commentary subsequently blamed Latham for crucial errors of policy and suggested that voters had been unwilling to embrace a leader who was seen by many as aggressive, meanspirited and uncouth. Within weeks of the election defeat, trenchant criticism began to emerge from Labor insiders citing Latham’s “leadership style” as having damaged the ALP’s campaign, and limited the prospects of a political recovery in the new parliament. This postelection bloodletting had a devastating effect on Latham and he initially struggled to keep his equilibrium, and then became progressively more disengaged. A crucial moment came with a qualified withdrawal of support for Latham by his senior parliamentary party colleagues in early December 2004.
Post-election Latham appeared to be in a psychologically deflated and dysfunctional state: he had withdrawn into himself, virtually stopped talking to his staff and, worse, was not returning the phone calls of his leadership colleagues. With his grip on the leadership tenuous and increasingly under threat, a lone Mark Latham conducted a somewhat make-shift media conference in a small suburban park in Sydney at which he read the announcement of his resignation from the leadership and the parliament on the grounds of ill health, took no journalist questions, and left looking miserable, pathetic and distinctly unwell. It seemed as though Latham had suffered a psychological collapse. At that moment, the “crash through or crash” style that had heralded Latham’s elevation to the leadership had seen him tumble and crack in a spectacular and tragic fall of his own making. So how did things go so horribly wrong? How did the early promise of significant leadership innovation and success turn into such a political disaster? How did the exciting new generation leader come to such an ignominious unravelling in public, and then proceed to further shred his reputation through the publication of a vengeful, tell-all memoir? What caused Latham to have such a great fall from the high wall of his political ambition?
There were, of course, real political factors that shaped the possibilities of Latham’s leadership, as there were external considerations that constrained his decision-making. To dwell here on the psychological factors at work is not to deny the force of those “objective” issues that can have an impact on, or even define, political leadership. However, there are a number of features of Latham’s leadership where psychoanalytic insights can assist in understanding the distinctive personality factors shaping his political behaviour and contributing to his political successes and failures.
From the vantage point of close observation, Latham’s behavior might best be characterised as that of a narcissistic loner, whose best and worst political outcomes were shaped by a psychological state — an inflated but fragile sense of self enclosed by a shell-like exterior that proved brittle and ultimately inadequate — that disposed him to believe he could not trust anybody else and that he alone knew the way to political success. Strongly reminiscent of key features of the psychological character of his political hero, former US president, Richard Nixon (Volkan, Itzkowitz, Dod, 1997), that state involved a deep sense of paranoia that periodically affected his judgments and prompted bouts of irrational behaviour.
Of course, all successful political leaders have a healthy degree of narcissistic self-regard, as well as a certain measure of paranoia. These qualities are necessary for political action and for leadership survival, but when they become excessive and overpowering of other more socially adaptive instincts, they can lead to debilitating and dysfunctional ways of acting politically. Latham has referred to himself as a narcissist (his first wife quotes him as having defended a particular aspect of his behaviour by saying: “I’m a narcissist.”), and in a revealing (and oxymoronic) comment, he has described himself as a “one-man think-tank”, and written that he was waging “a one-man war” against the conservative government. “I’m a loner”, he wrote in his Diaries, “a maverick too heretical for his colleagues” (Latham, 2005a: 74). Certainly, those declarations well express his inner sense of himself. It is as if Latham has created a political world of his own imagination, where he controls the environment of thought and action, and no one or nothing intrudes to disrupt this perfect self-sufficient universe.
Indeed, if Latham’s leadership has an emblematic motto that sums up his forte as well as his vulnerability, it is: “I can do it all myself” (see Almond, 2004: 371-384). Associated with that narcissism are feelings of paranoia — manifesting itself as a kind of persecutory anxiety — that became fully evident in his Diaries: nobody is spared, he sees friend and foe alike as attacking him, and the flipside of “I can do it all myself” becomes more obvious: “I don’t trust anybody but myself”, he seems to be saying. “Everyone else is trying to undermine me, and my claim to greatness.”
In essence, the electoral defeat of October 2004 and its aftermath produced in Latham a serious personality crisis, where the intrusions of political reality — the adverse electoral judgments of the voters and subsequently of his Labor party colleagues — pierced his brittle shell and punctured the inflated and unreal sense of self that had sustained him, albeit unevenly, through the period of his leadership. If the voters’ electoral rejection of Latham was critically important, the subsequent withdrawal of support by key elements of the Labor party was decisive. This occurred when — following the election defeat in October 2004 — senior members of the parliamentary Labor party began to distance themselves from Latham’s leadership and constrain his freedom to act.
Thus began the accelerated meltdown of Mark Latham. What then ensued has been described as a serious crisis of confidence in Latham, but it might be understood better as a profoundly deflating psychological phase — one that led six weeks later to his resignation. It was also a phase in which, through his public comments and later, and more fully, in his Diaries, Latham sought to establish an inner rationalisation for his defeat and rejection: “I was not at fault”, he seemed to be saying, “I was betrayed by the party and people within it, who were not worthy of my talents.”
Latham’s narcissistic and paranoid personality shaped a consistent pattern of political behaviour. The core features of that style are a distinctive political brilliance and drive that is accompanied by paranoia and destructive tendencies — anger, rage, envy and resentment — which suggest an inner dynamic involving overweening ambition defending against (that is, compensating for) low self-esteem. As well, like his political hero, Richard Nixon, Latham is a “serial collector of resentments” (Matthews, 1996) and, at times, his political outlook is dominated by extreme suspicion and distrust, hostility and — again like Nixon — a pervasive preoccupation with enemies, whether real or imagined.
Latham’s narcissistic behaviour has been exemplified by problematic features. The first is a tendency to bite the hand that feeds him, a tendency to obliterate from his mind those who help and support him. Secondly, Latham exhibits a tendency toward destructive envy and resentment of those who, he believes, have entitlements greater than his own. This is linked to an ambivalent attitude towards elites and people in authority and sometimes manifests itself as a reluctance or unwillingness to engage with entities or institutions bigger than him. At other times this appears as a tendency to enviously abuse and tear down to his level anyone whom he perceives as occupying a superior position. Thirdly, he shows in his political behaviour an obsessive concern never to do what is expected of him, to demonstrate — above all else — that he is in control. And, fourthly, he shows a tendency toward paranoid fantasies, where “friend” and foe alike are seen as attacking or undermining him.
Associated with these features is a high level of rage by Latham at a political world that he cannot bend to his will, a world that he ultimately rejects and vilifies in his Diaries, an intellectual work which, like its author, is frequently brilliant and acutely perceptive but mostly destructive and self-destructive and sometimes paranoid. These are features of a narcissistic personality that drove Latham to seek and attain the leadership. But they are qualities of a flawed personality that render his leadership unsustainable, and contain the seeds of his ultimate downfall.
Following publication of the Diaries, Latham’s successor (and former rival) as national Labor leader, Kim Beazley, said that Latham would get “the gold medal in biting the hand that feeds [him]” for his denigration of a party that had supported and sustained him for almost twenty years. In fact, biting the hand that feeds him seems to have been a behavioural tendency in Latham throughout his adult political life, and expresses the ambivalence he feels towards anyone who supports him. This ambivalence is an expression of the internal struggle Latham has when his own sense of “doing it all himself” is under challenge, and when he projects his own hostility onto those around him. As was evident in his Diaries, he eventually bit indiscriminately the institutional hands that fed him through his rise to the leadership: the Labor party, which nurtured and sustained him by selecting him for his various positions of public office, his national Right faction (caucus), which gave him preferment in many of those roles, and the parliament itself, which supported him in a position of power and influence. This personality feature also found expression in his relationships with important individuals at various points and is a continuous thread running through several of the otherwise troubling and puzzling matters that were the subject of media stories about Latham. These matters involve his disparagement (and, sometimes, rejection) of people who help and support him at crucial periods in his life.
The first relates to his treatment of the small group of friends and associates of his father, who were among a number of others in the neighbourhood who regularly contributed financially to his university education when his father died at a young age. These Labor men passed around the hat for several years to assist their mate’s talented son, whose educational opportunities might otherwise have been very limited. While Latham initially expressed appreciation for their support, he eventually broke with his father’s mates, one of whom he characterised as “a big noter … obsessively talking about himself …[a] nutter….” (Latham, 2005a: 205). Latham was scathing of their supposed political transgressions against him, and grudging about their financial contribution, which he managed to minimise and characterize as self-interested.
Later in life he sought to return the money. The second matter relates to the later treatment of his first wife, who was, by his own admission at various times, vitally involved in supporting his early political career in the Labor party and particularly in his bid for election to local government. She was intellectually bright (“I’ve married a genius!”, he told a journalist in 1997), supportive and made sacrifices to assist his political career. Leaving aside the purely matrimonial issues that might have led to the breakdown of this first marriage, Latham’s subsequent characterisation of his wife is remarkably similar to the denigration of his father’s mates: she had betrayed him, he said, she was hysterical and bitter, and she had worked against him. In the same way that he came to see his father’s mates, he seemed to believe she was unimportant in his natural and inevitable rise to “greatness”.
The third example involves his treatment of his mentor, Gough Whitlam, former Labor prime minister of Australia, 1972-1975. After Whitlam’s retirement from the parliament in 1980, Latham had worked as a researcher on his staff and, with Whitlam’s encouragement and support, subsequently succeeded in gaining Labor nomination for Whitlam’s former parliamentary seat. Through his ten-year period in the parliament, and especially in the leadup to his election as leader in December 2003, Latham enjoyed Whitlam’s significant patronage and energetic advocacy of his claims to the leadership. However, after he resigned from the parliament in January 2005, Latham turned on Whitlam over a comment the former prime minister was said to have privately passed about his future, which Latham interpreted as less than wholly affirmative. Latham castigated Whitlam in public, describing his mentor’s remark — an uncritical but frank assessment of the viability of Latham staying in the parliament after his resignation for health reasons from the Labor leadership — as “beyond the pale” and “the cruellest cut of all”, and vowed never to speak to him again (Latham, 2005a: 413).
The pattern in these relationships seems clear: those who help or work with Latham are eventually discarded as his initial feeling of obligation reaches a tipping point and is experienced by him as a dependence that must be obliterated as an offence to the internal myth of his own self-creation. Looked at in another way, Latham’s response seems like a paranoid reflex: supporters and associates are seen as never quite wholehearted in their support, and he is hyper-alert to signs that they are really enemies. This was evident in Latham’s treatment of senior Labor MP, Robert McClelland. It was McClelland’s eleventh hour support for Latham in the parliamentary Labor party ballot of December 2003 that had delivered the leadership to Latham in a close vote, 47-45. However, after the ballot Latham leapt to the conclusion that McClelland had not, in fact, voted for him and subsequently wrote a gratuitously disparaging comment about him in his Diaries (Latham, 2005a: 250). In his paranoid way Latham is ever alert to signs that affection is not real, and he can never quite accept declarations of support.
At other times, when his narcissistic “entitlement” is breached — the demands of his grandiose self-image betrayed — Latham responds with retaliatory rage and retribution. This becomes clearer in relation to his friends and those political associates with whom he makes common cause at particular periods in his political rise. A strong element here is that his brittle shell will not allow any skerrick of criticism and any deviation from wholehearted support by friends and associates is responded to with a flight to destructive rage and vindictiveness. This became evident in Latham’s treatment of a close intellectual collaborator on several books, Professor Peter Botsman. Latham and Botsman were good friends and in 2001 they co-edited a book, a collection of papers proposing a “third way” approach to governance in Australia. Botsman was a respected academic and foundation director of Sydney’s Whitlam Institute at the time of his collaboration with Latham, who sat as a member of the institute’s board.
In an opinion piece for The Australian newspaper on 3 July 2002, Botsman wrote of Latham’s great strengths and capabilities and referred to a particular political blow that Latham had landed against John Howard. However, in the course of the piece, a draft of which he had sent to Latham for comment in advance of publication, Botsman mildly lamented Latham’s resort to “bovver boy” language as demeaning his talent, constraining his effectiveness, and diverting attention from the substantive political points he was making. Latham responded to the piece with undiluted rage and retribution. After he received a draft of the piece — prior to publication — Latham telephoned Botsman with the abusive message: “You’re dead, c…!”
Barely two weeks later at a meeting of the Whitlam Institute board, Latham withdrew his support for Botsman, prompting an expression by the board of “no confidence” in Botsman, and precipitating his departure as director (Duffy, 2004: 258). Latham and Botsman have not spoken since.
Latham’s relationship with others of his friends is also psychologically problematic and, frequently, his friends are “cut” when they fall short of his demand for unquestioning fealty, or move outside his immediate orbit, or are no longer useful. Latham also had difficulty in relating to senior figures, such as former Labor prime ministers, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke. Both offered advice and support and for a time they were successful in assisting Latham negotiate the political shoals that can emerge to imperil a new leader and, in Keating’s case, much else besides. But eventually they, too, were discarded by Latham when his paranoia kicked in and he grew more distrustful of advice or the tipping point of his obligation/dependence was reached. “Mate, he just doesn’t listen to anybody!”, Keating once lamented to me in exasperation.
“Doing it all himself” also figured in Latham’s relationships with his staff. He was often uncomfortable with the notion of independent advice from staff. If he was in a fragile mood, he rarely sought it and seldom took it. It was as if Latham’s narcissistic shell acted to protect him from “intrusions” from the close-up external world. In fact, he mostly preferred to see his staff as extensions of his arms and legs, and hence could preserve the notion that he was doing it all himself. Previous Labor opposition leaders had had a dedicated staff adviser on foreign policy but when he was elected to the leadership Latham dispensed with the role, preferring his own counsel, as he also did with political advice. Told once by me about a minor reshuffle of staff roles and assured that the position of his political adviser had not changed, he retorted testily: “I don’t need a political adviser. I’m the political adviser.”
He also thought himself the advance man, the press secretary, and the speechwriter, at times, as well. Drafts prepared by the leader’s speechwriter sometimes would be sent back by Latham with abusive comments (such as “crap”) scrawled on them. Then Latham would take hours out of a busy schedule to re-write and re-write the speech until he had largely (and, sometimes, completely) obliterated the work of the speechwriter—a Cambridge history PhD, who had written successful speeches for previous leaders—whose drafts were rarely improved by the re-writing.
However, it was not always so fraught. If Latham could feel elevated by famous people acting to support him, the psychological balance could be different, as it was in late September 2004 when the distinguished Labor speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg, wrote some elegant passages for Latham’s election campaign opening speech. But Latham’s obsessive insistence on “all his own work”, and the paranoid anxiety that underpinned it, was never far away, and it reached a peak during a closed-session rehearsal for the speech. When he discovered on the autocue that his speech had been edited (to correct a small factual error) without his knowledge, Latham threw a tantrum, abruptly halted the rehearsal and sulked from the venue.
Another expression of this inner need to “expunge other minds” came on the campaign trail in 2004 when Latham once became agitated at the idea of his travelling staff of advisers attending his public campaign meetings. Clearly, there are reasons why a leader would wish to minimise the size of the entourage required to support him on the road. Latham’s injunction to me that staff not be visible at his public meetings at times appeared irrational, especially when expressed by him in terms that it bothered him that he could see staff from the podium. At another time, he developed a set against his media adviser, complaining to me that she was frequently in shot during his door-stop TV interviews; she “loves the limelight”, he later wrote in his Diaries (Latham, 2005a: 334), perhaps really meaning that he didn’t want to share it.
At another time he directed that junior staff were not to join in the regular evening news monitoring around the TV in the leader’s media office — if he was present: “No hanging around the honey pot”, he told me to tell staff. These responses seem more consistent with the idea that being reminded of staff presence and staff-work offended his defining sense of self, that he was doing it all himself, and wanted to keep it that way.
Particularly with the key figures in his political rise, it is as if Latham cannot bear to recognise anyone who helps him up the ladder of opportunity, and wants to push everyone else off on his way up. If they praise him, that is merely his due. If they criticise him, they are fair game since he owes them nothing. The consistent theme running through this behaviour is that Latham’s narcissism requires him to obliterate (ablate) from his mind everybody who ever helped him, as a way of underpinning his inner belief that he is doing it all himself (see Rycroft, 1985: 214-232). Whatever he has achieved he has done on his own, he made it all happen by himself, his political persona is self-created, he needs nobody and he owes nothing to anybody. He has erased his past as if it did not exist, and created his own myth as, in a sense, fatherless from his own father on, not seeing how he stood on others’ shoulders both in his personal and political life. In fact, he doesn’t see how anybody really helped him at all, only how they did him in. Why else, given his enormous talents — the inner rationale would run — could it have all gone so wrong?
Mark Latham’s personality was shaped in the crucible of the family home in western Sydney almost fifty years ago. Latham was raised in the working class suburb of Ashcroft, in Sydney’s southwest, having been born on 28 February 1961, the son of Don Latham and his second wife, Lorraine, who had met her husband at a Sydney factory, where Don was the foreman and she was a nineteen year-old worker (Lagan, 2005: 41-42). Mark was the first of four children, and the only boy. His home life was typical for the humble neighbourhood in which he was brought up, that of a battling family struggling to make ends meet, but whose financial circumstances were further adversely affected by his father’s serious gambling. Don typically gambled and lost, and the family frequently went without. In these difficult circumstances, Lorraine bravely took on the responsibility of ensuring that the young Latham would not be disadvantaged in life. He became her special project, she devoted herself to him (pampering him like “a privileged prince”, in one description) and she nurtured him in the belief that he was destined for greatness. Don Latham, too, had high expectations for his young son, and told his friends: “He’s gonna be prime minister one day, this boy” (Lagan, 2005: 44).
Latham was a very bright student, who studied assiduously and won the prize for Dux of his secondary school, later being admitted to study Economics at the University of Sydney. Latham’s biographer, Bernard Lagan, has written of Latham’s great disappointment in learning that he had won the university’s economics prize for second year students on the day his father died, and that Don never knew of his son’s achievement. From Lagan’s account, it is evident that—for all his love and pride in his son—Don Latham tended to be hard on his son. He was a demanding father, a man who drank with his mates and gambled excessively, and who was evidently emotionally absent at crucial points in the young Latham’s upbringing.
So, from his mother came the sense that he was special, and destined for greatness. From his father he derived an additional spur to that ambition, but combined with an emotionally fragile and flawed inner means of achieving it. There appears to be an echo of the “absent father” experience in Latham’s emphasis on childcentered policies, and his own preoccupation with being a “home dad” following his departure from politics in 2005. When he was leader Latham frequently felt the absence of his own sons, as he wrote in his Diaries in May 2004:
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. My only relief is to have the boys in the office. I played a game this afternoon with little Issie, spinning him around and rolling him up in the curtains — his face exploding with laughter. Inside the curtains was our little cocoon. Nervous about my Budget Reply speech. I didn’t want to come out of the cocoon. I would have happily stayed there, and promised Isaac that one day we will. I’ll escape and become a proper dad again. Our little secret. (Latham, 2005a: 285)
At another point Latham wrote in his Diaries of his feelings about his father, who died when he was 19: I was proud of my father but struggle with the realisation that I never knew him properly, never got to talk to him properly, never got to talk to him as an adult about his other life — his first marriage, his daughters, his problem on the punt, etc. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. Mum was the hero from my childhood, but Dad remains my emotional legacy. That’s why I hate being away from Ollie. A son must always know his father, and never be left wondering. (Latham, 2005a: 224)
It is a moving and revealing passage, and the questions that leap out are: “Left wondering what? Whether his father really loved him?” As we know, the core of a narcissistic personality is usually an insecure sense of self, commonly derived from a child feeling unwanted and unloved. The child compensates for this felt deprivation by an exaggerated self-love, which is both fragile and insufficient to withstand the bumps and bruises of everyday living (Kohut, 1971). Frequently associated with that fragile sense of self is grandiose ambition and, conversely, chronic intense envy and intolerance of humiliation, disappointment and setback (Kernberg, 1975). Typically, praise is craved and savoured as confirming the grandiose self. Criticism, on the other hand, pierces the brittle shell of inflated self-regard and unleashes rage and retribution against real and imagined enemies. These features are clearly evident in Latham’s leadership and abundantly on the record in his Diaries.
From a psychoanalytic perspective it is likely that Latham’s inner conflict derives from the internalised contradictory positions of his mother and father: the mother who has the young Latham as her special project and is a key source of his ambition, and the father, whose emotional absence set up the self-doubt that is defended against by exaggerated claims to greatness. Put another way, his mother has put this Humpty Dumpty Man on the high wall, but his internalized father—flawed role model that he is — is no help once he is there. As a backbench MP, Latham went on a State Department-funded trip to the United States in 1998.
He has written that the best part was a visit to Richard Nixon’s presidential library and birthplace at Yorba Linda, California. Latham has a great admiration and fascination for Nixon, the archetypical paranoid politician of the modern era. As he wrote in his Diaries of his visit: “What a highlight: you can walk through the old Nixon house and imagine Hannah Nixon whispering to her son, ‘Richard, don’t give up. Don’t let anyone tell you you are through’” (Latham, 2005a: 96). Another of Latham’s personality traits is his grandiosity, which is obvious from entries in his Diaries: he had an exaggerated response to praise, and experienced even mild criticism or setback as persecution. At one point, in response to very positive comments about one of his books from the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Ian Macfarlane, Latham wrote in his Diaries: “It’s nice to receive praise at such a high level” (Latham, 2005a: 74). Buoyed, on another occasion, by a warm response to what he termed a “cracker” of a speech at a conference, he wrote: “Am I a prophet in my own town?” (Latham, 2005a: 75). That grandiosity is also evident in his exaggerated evaluation of his own talents and achievements:
“Between this lecture [in September 2002] and last year’s effort at [the University of New South Wales in Sydney], I’ve worked out the framework for a modern, successful Labor Party” (Latham, 2005a: 199). Later, after the success of his ALP national conference speech in January 2004, he wrote an entry in his Diary that he feels like “the Lion King of the show”. He writes of his early political gains as “too easy”, and the successes of his various political announcements as “money for jam” (Latham, 2005a: 264). These are not merely the expressions of a typical political leader’s ego, but the leading edge of a grandiosity that knew no bounds. Even when — in his first serious foray into foreign policy in March 2004 — Latham made a famous misstep of announcing in a radio interview that, under a Labor government, Australian military forces would be withdrawn from Iraq “by Christmas”, he saw only his own unbounded cleverness. He ebulliently told staff after the interview that he thought he was “good at foreign policy” and that it was “easy”.
Conversely, Latham expressed a disdain for the mundane and boring things that politics sometimes demands of a leader because such things did not reaffirm his elevated sense of himself. In one of the entries in his Diaries, Latham wrote: “Earlier in the week, I was in Tasmania with our candidate for Braddon…. And what did he have me do? Judge a lasagne cooking competition at the university campus in Burnie, including a purple lasagne. There has to be a better life than this” (Latham, 2005a: 85). However, if the stakes were high enough, Latham was fully engaged, and he could exhibit brilliant tactical finesse and — as he did on several notable high-profile policy matters — leave his political opponents flat-footed as he executed a daring political manoeuvre. This was Latham at his loner best, never doing what was expected of him. His performance over the course of the highly charged debate on the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States illustrates Latham’s strengths as well as his vulnerabilities. As the process for parliamentary passage of the FTA came to a head in August 2004, it seemed that public opinion had swung behind the Howard government’s initiative in negotiating the agreement with evident benefits to the Australian economy. Sensing that it had been politically wedged by a deft government manoeuvre, Labor had delayed announcing its stand on the FTA as it worked to find a point of vulnerability in the government’s political position and allow some policy differentiation for itself. There seemed reluctant acceptance in the Labor caucus that the majority public perception was that the FTA was broadly beneficial to the Australian economy, even if the effects were not uniformly positive and were potentially deleterious to some industry sectors.
With the parliamentary vote on the FTA rapidly approaching, Latham devised a two-pronged foray into the terms of the FTA as a condition of Labor support for its passage through the Senate: a demand that Australian media content rules be exempted from the terms of the FTA, and a requirement to protect the availability of cheaper generic drugs from the operation of the agreement. These Latham initiatives, which were sprung at the last minute on an unaware parliamentary Labor party, as well as an unsuspecting government, were high-risk — and typically “crazybrave” as some in the media observed — but they succeeded and were rightly applauded by party and media observers alike as a significant tactical victory. However, Latham was never going to meekly accept the government’s dictates over the passage of the Bill, nor was he going to do what was expected of him. As he wrote more generally in his Diaries: “There is something about the parliamentary system that narrows down the individual. It takes committed people — complex and passionate by nature, which is why they go into politics in the first place — and turns them into one-dimensional robots…. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees” (Latham, 2005a: 92).
Here was the characteristic approach of the narcissist. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees” is an expression of an “all or nothing” approach, and it suggests reckless ambition. Driven by his inner imperative to do things his way, Latham constructed a political strategy about the FTA that ensured that his inner needs were fulfilled, even if it was left to others to make the initiatives work politically. It is, of course, the leader’s prerogative to chart his own course, but at times like this for his colleagues and staff, it was like being in a threelegged race with a child who perversely decides he is going to hop, skip and jump his way to the winning line.
A further expression of Latham’s narcissism is his ambivalence toward organizations and groups to which he finds himself connected. These institutional ties and his desire to change the organizations themselves seem entirely contingent upon whether they serve his purposes, whatever they might be at any one time. For example, Latham sees himself as a club-buster, and describes himself as “an angry young man from Green Valley, ripping and tearing against those opposed to change — club-busting, as I called it at [Sydney’s] Liverpool Council [where
he was a Councillor and later Mayor from 1987 to 1994]” (Latham, 2005a: 161).
This club busting reflects his ambivalence about his status as an outsider wanting to be an insider, about privilege and his envy and resentment of people in a position he perceives as excluding him. He is anti-elite, anti-union, anti-faction, indeed, anti every group that excludes him—unless, of course, he is taken into membership at an elevated level. So while he is antielite, for example, he actually wants to join the elite, albeit on his own terms—he is, after all, running for the top job in the country. He is anti-faction, but indulges in factional activity himself when it suits him in order to advance his own political position in Canberra. He is opposed to the parliamentary pension scheme for politicians, a scheme he condemns as a “rotten rort”(scam), but when his turn comes — as it did when he resigned — he does not hesitate to take the money himself, no doubt seeing it as his just entitlement (Latham, 2005a: 267). Similarly, he is consistently critical of the journalists comprising what he calls the “selfserving commentariat”, but he sees no issue with joining their ranks himself when — after leaving politics — he takes up writing a regular column in a leading daily newspaper, The Australian Financial Review.
In these instances it is not so much that Latham is being hypocritical, per se, but that he is acting out his intense envy: although he derides others who have what he wants, it is OK if he has it. At other times, his envy is destructive: he wants to grab what “the other” has for himself, but if he can’t get it he doesn’t want the other to have it either. There is an echo here of his comment to the 2004 ALP national conference about getting poor people off welfare: “When I was young, my mum used to tell me there were two types of people in our street—the slackers and the hard workers.” Latham doesn’t accept that others deserve what they have. He wants what they’ve got, and if he doesn’t have it, why should they? There are, of course, good reasons for welfare reform, but Latham’s original draft of the speech — in which he used the distinctive Australian epithet “bludgers” rather than the milder “slackers” to sweepingly disparage all those receiving welfare support— discloses the destructive envy behind the remark. (Although the word “slackers” appeared in the speech as delivered and later published, Latham had originally written “bludgers”, but was talked out of using the term by staff.) His was not an expression of the traditional Labor concern for giving to the “have-nots” but a resentful preoccupation with taking-away from the “have-mores” — even from working class neighbours.
In the Diaries, his ambivalent preoccupation with the “insider-outsider” dynamic is evident: he is at one moment attacking the exclusion represented by “the club”, the next moment extolling the appeal of a particular “club of privilege” to which he had been granted (momentary) entry. In this case, it was the sports radio commentary box at the Sydney Cricket Ground where he was a guest commentator: “It’s the world’s best job: great view of the ground, chat away about the game, food and grog laid on, and you get paid for it” (Latham, 2005a: 261).
Here is Latham’s unwitting description of an enclosed narcissistic universe: privileged position, limitless supplies, perfect bliss. Latham’s resentment is fully on display (but unrecognised by him) a mere three lines after this description, where he lashes a former Labor political colleague, Rodney Cavalier, who had become chairman of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, for his role in presiding over the Trust box at the cricket: “Lord [sic] Rodney Cavalier loves to lord it over the assembled guests: a combination of ex-party heroes, business donors and political hangers-on, all enjoying the largesse with their nosebags on” (Latham, 2005a: 261).
Latham’s destructive envy was also evident in the manner in which key policy positions were articulated politically, as it was when Labor’s policy announcement on school education was formulated in the lead-up to the 2004 election. One essential feature of the policy was a redistribution of government grants away from wealthy private schools to schools, both private and government, that had far fewer resources and none of the infrastructure common among the privileged schools. Particularly targeted by Labor were 67 elite private schools whose annual basic grants would remain but whose supplementary grants (totalling some A$520 million annually) would be redistributed to some 9700 schools around the country that had far less. Sensible though the broad policy was in substance, the whole of the policy presentation, at Latham’s direction, was concentrated on one part of it, on the notion of taking away resources from the 67 elite private schools, which schools came to be termed Labor’s “hit list”. It was, in other words, a policy presentation grounded in envy, and designed to appeal to the supposed envy of the electorate; Latham gave no attention to the 9700 schools that would be better off. (Latham’s successor as leader, Kim Beazley, acknowledged the mistake of Latham’s approach when he announced in May 2006 that Labor was abandoning the “hit list” of schools, which he described as “the politics of envy”.) In focusing on the privileged 67, Latham was projecting his envy about those in society who had entitlements he felt had been denied him: if he had not had these benefits, why should anyone else?
This resentment was sometimes even more openly apparent. In mid-2004, there was a small fundraising dinner for Labor organised by a Sydney investment banker, who had offered his up-market North Shore residence for the occasion. Surveying the house when he arrived as guest of honour Latham remarked to his banker host: “Who did you have to rip off to pay for this?” (Perhaps one should not be surprised at the resentment evident in Latham’s remark. In a newspaper interview in 1997, he had told a journalist: “I grew up thinking [Sydney’s] North Shore is the enemy and … I still think that.”) Frequently his envy and resentment manifested as a deep distrust of those who he thought of as constituting an elite — the United States, big business, trade union leadership — and a reluctance to engage with anyone or any entity (whether nation state or business organization) that he saw as bigger than himself. It is not without significance, for example, that he chose for his only overseas visits as Labor leader, two countries that were smaller than Australia (New Zealand and Papua New Guinea) and was reluctant –despite the urging of colleagues and staff — to visit the great powers of the US, China, and Japan, and the more populous neighbour, Indonesia. Perhaps in PNG he could see himself as a bigger man than the Papuans and New Guineans, whom — using a racially pejorative term — he referred to around the office as “Freddie Coconut”. This was not an isolated example of Latham’s disparaging put-down of other people: he routinely referred to people from the Middle East as “towel-heads” and, adopting American GI slang for the Viet Cong, referred to Vietnamese people as “Charlie”. This is not Latham being racist, per se, but he is relentless in his put down of other people as a way of raising himself up in his own estimation.
Latham also found it difficult to engage with business leaders, and was rarely comfortable in their presence. During those times during his leadership when his anxiety and fragility was at its greatest, he abruptly cancelled meetings with business leaders, and issued instructions to me that no further business group meetings were to be put in his schedule. Several times, for no obvious political reason, he declined my urging to meet with the CEO of the multinational resources company, Rio Tinto. He also would not attend meetings with the CEOs of major corporates, avoiding them at planned Parliament House meetings. On another occasion, he similarly refused my request for him to take a telephone call from media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, who was simply ringing as a matter of courtesy to inform him — as Murdoch had done with the prime minister—of some market sensitive information relating to News Corporation.
While there may be a political overlay in Latham’s behavior in these instances, there is also a strong element of resentment at the imbalance in the power relationship he perceived between himself and the businessmen concerned.
At other times, when the psychological balance was constructed in his favour, Latham could be fully engaged and perform superbly. At a small business fundraising dinner I attended with him in Brisbane in early 2004, for example, he was introduced by then Queensland state Labor premier, Peter Beattie, who gave a virtuoso display of his political skills and charm in extolling to the guests Latham’s leadership and the importance of him being elected at the forthcoming national election. Uplifted by this expansive introduction, Latham, who had been reluctant to attend and had arrived in sour humour, responded with a dazzling performance of his own.
It was as if Beattie’s flattering characterisation had matched Latham’s own narcissistic sense of himself: thus validated, he could perform to the level of his own exalted fantasy. Beattie’s generous expression of support did not stop Latham from subsequently referring to him in print as an “A-grade arsehole” (Lagan, 2005: 223). Indeed, a feature of Latham’s political persona is his denigration of his political colleagues as a way of raising himself up in his own estimation. A feature of his Diaries is the litany of disparaging nicknames he gives to both his party opponents—and his supporters. Of course, competitive rivalries between politicians in leadership positions are normal and inevitable. However, in Latham’s case, this rivalry takes a somewhat relentless and extreme form. In the Diaries, he systematically belittles and demeans the activities and efforts of his colleagues, as if only his actions are worthy and good, and anyone else’s political efforts are properly the object of ridicule and
derision. It is intense envy not only of what he wants to “have”, but of what he wants to “be”.
Hence, it is no surprise that his deadliest venom in the Diaries is directed at the former leader, Kim Beazley: Latham wants to be what he is not. This destructive envy spreads to anyone who he feels stands taller than him and, hence, one by one his senior colleagues — whether supporters or rivals — are characterized as stupid or inferior, while his own activities are extolled as brilliant and masterly. At several points he compares himself to Winston Churchill (Latham, 2005a: 132). This grandiosity is also evident in Latham’s 2006 publishing venture, a compilation of quotable quotes (Latham, 2006). In the book one finds a selection of more than forty of Latham’s own observations — more invective than wit, as one reviewer commented — nestled beside the erudite quotations of von Hayek and Roosevelt, Rousseau and Seneca. Like the schoolboy who scrawls his own name in his autograph book beside those of his heroes, Latham is seeking to elevate his thoughts — and their author — by the company in which they appear in print.
Although in a highly competitive environment, there is, of course, an overt political dimension to all Latham’s hostile characterisations of his rivals and colleagues, there are significant psychological elements, as well, and one can see in these expressions still further manifestations of Latham’s narcissistic personality: he is deeply intolerant of anyone who might stand in the place he covets, he alone is worthy of respect, and he alone has the answers to the political issues he regards as important. He pulls others down to his level if he cannot displace them, and when he cannot shape this political world to his will, he rejects it completely. This became more evident after his resignation; he did not make it as Labor leader, so his public attitude was: “Stuff the Labor party!” It was also obvious when, in a speech to university students after his Diaries were published, he urged young people to shun politics altogether (Latham, 2005b). Latham was at it again during the national election campaign of 2007, pouring scorn on the leadership of his erstwhile rival, Kevin Rudd, who seemed likely to — and did, in fact — succeed in becoming Labor prime minister several weeks later (Latham, 2007).
A feature of Latham’s persecutory fantasies is the paranoid rage that sometimes attended them. In January 2004, Latham gave the opening speech to the ALP national conference, less than two months after his election to the leadership. This was an important speech, one that would chart the policy course for the party in an election year, and cast his leadership profile more fully on the national stage. The speech was rapturously received and the leader was exhilarated by the response of delegates and journalists alike. Latham’s euphoria turned to rage and despair, however, when the soft-copy release of the speech was discovered to have unintentionally included meta-data, so-called editing “track changes”, which revealed earlier draft comments by Latham’s speechwriter — a former Labor leader’s staffer — that should have been deleted before its public release. Government staffers had evidently scoured the emailed media release of the speech file to reveal the track changes and fed them to journalists with a political spin about the “real” author of the speech.
The track change elements of the speech were an embarrassing staff production gaffe, and they allowed Labor’s political opponents to distract attention from the policy and performance in Latham’s speech to a media sideshow of momentary consequence. Latham was entitled to be upset at the mistake; his paranoid response, however, was disproportionate and revealed his narcissistic vulnerability: “WHY—IS—EVERYONE—OPPOSED—TO—ME?” he bellowed as he raged around the leader’s conference office in a 20-minute tantrum. “THIS—WAS— THE—MOST—IMPORTANT—SPEECH—OF—MY—LIFE. WHY—ARE—THEY— GETTING—AT—ME?!” Again, it was as if his internal universe of brilliance and superiority was under attack from people who didn’t understand and acknowledge his claim to greatness. Latham’s response in this incident mirrors those personality types who compensate for low self-esteem by developing a grandiose conception of themselves (“the grandiose self”), and who respond to attacks on their defensively inflated self-image with narcissistic rage and the paranoid transfer of blame to other individuals (Post, Robins, 1997: 16).
Latham’s brittleness was more publicly apparent later in the year when he was under media scrutiny over aspects of his private life. In June 2004, at a time when various newspaper profiles were being prepared of Latham, several rumours began circulating in Canberra political circles speculating about explicit (and reportedly sordid) details of his private life that might find their way into the stories. Latham’s response was completely disproportionate and debilitating: in advance of any publication he became preoccupied with the gossip to the point of distraction. (One piece of gossip was a retread of a story that had been circulating in 1998, and about which he later referred in his Diaries to “a dirty little rumour designed to damage me” (Latham, 2005a: 79).
The threat of detailed media scrutiny of his private life, however unlikely, seemed to be experienced by him as a kind of assault on his sense of himself. As he said after he had resigned the leadership: “There is something horribly unnatural about losing your privacy. It’s like losing part of yourself…” (Latham, 2005b).
This sense of being under siege was given added impetus when a TV current affairs program reported an allegation that during his time in local government he had been involved in an incident in which a constituent was manhandled and punched. Obsessively fearing further exposure about his (supposedly unsavoury) past, and against the advice of his media staff, he several days later engaged in a pre-emptive strike against disclosure by outing himself in an extraordinary and emotional media conference at which he canvassed (in order to scotch) rumours about which most political journalists had little idea, and even less intention of reporting.
For several weeks after the media conference in July, Latham withdrew into his shell, appeared sullen and disengaged around the office, and gave a series of dull and sedative public performances. Although he was eventually coaxed out of this funk, his psychological state was a precursor to the final post-election collapse six months later. By the time of the election campaign in September-October 2004, Latham was in a state of high anxiety and paranoia—the dynamic downward spiral to meltdown was by now well-advanced — and it dominated his performances. In the very first week, Latham experienced a bout of paranoia concerning a media event organized by his office to accompany a Labor policy launch on mortgage interest rates. The event involved visiting a new housing estate in Melbourne and talking to a young couple about their fears concerning the prospect of interest rate rises should the conservative government be returned to office. They were to be the endorsement “talent” for Labor’s policy announcement on keeping mortgage interest rates low. The couple were legitimate representatives of a voter constituency holding such fears but — in the way of political campaigns — their involvement had been recommended by a party official acquaintance because of their known views on this issue. Their attitudes were confirmed by advancers from the leader’s office, and verified by Latham’s political adviser who had satisfied himself of the couple’s bona fides, as well as the direction of their views.
Despite these triple checks, Latham was not satisfied, and the night before the scheduled campaign event he became deeply suspicious that the couple might say something — anything!– positive about the incumbent government and the prime minister to journalists after the event. At Latham’s anxious insistence, the couple was telephoned by his media adviser while he (and I, and others) listened on a speakerphone as a series of hypothetical questions was put to the husband about his attitude to the prime minister and his government’s economic management, as well, of course, about the couple’s concerns on housing interest rates. While their fears about the government and interest rates were clearly reaffirmed, eventually — inevitably — one question provoked a tentative positive response about Howard: “Well, yes, he has managed the economy well.”
This was Q.E.D. for Latham: the couple could not be trusted and its participation in the event scheduled for the next day would be abandoned. From a political perspective it is reasonable, of course, to argue that campaigning is about minimising or excluding the potential for negatives of this kind, but Latham’s attitude was in a different realm. Driven by paranoid anxiety, he could not tolerate anyone associated with him (even tangentially, as this couple were) believing anything positive about his enemy. To do so — to elevate Howard in this way — would be to diminish him, and such thoughts and ideas had to be banished. As they had been told to do, the couple waited at their house the next day for the Latham campaign caravan to arrive. It rolled past without stopping. At the end of the campaign Latham’s paranoia was still running high. During one of the most notorious incidents of his career as leader, he was involved in a confrontation with the prime minister on the eve of the poll. In what had become a de rigueur photo opportunity for the campaign media, Latham encountered Howard as he left a Sydney radio studio and the prime minister arrived. As their paths crossed, and the TV cameras captured the moment, Latham sharply drew his shorter opponent toward him and towered over him in a bone-crushing handshake in which he looked bullying and intimidating and appeared for an instant as if he was going to head-butt the prime minister.
It is likely that this moment was not an aberration of behavior by Latham but a show of strength, a premeditated attempt to demonstrate that he was younger, taller, stronger, and more virile than his opponent. Certainly, Latham has confirmed that it was premeditated, although in his Diaries he offers a different account of it, based upon a kind of self-defence, which reveals some of his persecutory anxiety and demonstrates the way in which he projects his own hostility: Howard deserved a lot more than a firm handshake. Throughout the campaign, every time I saw him he tried to give me a bonecrusher… It’s a small man’s thing, trying to show you can match the big guy at something… [T]he last Sunday of the campaign…
Howard did the same thing to Janine [Latham’s wife]. She said to me, “That man just tried to break my hand. It really hurt.” Enough was enough. Next time I saw him, at the ABC Radio studio in Sydney, I put on the squeeze and got a bit closer to him…. The weak animal [sic] looked startled, so it had the desired effect. It’s ironic, however; I’m supposed to be the intimidating one in politics, but I have never tried to break a woman’s hand. How does Howard get away with it?” (Latham, 2005a: 369).
Latham’s extraordinary claim that the prime minister was trying to break his wife’s hand is consistent with his paranoid fantasies, where—as he elsewhere wrote in the Diaries—he saw everyone as against him, including “Labor people, my staff, Green Valley types [including his father’s mates], the Hurlstonians [former students of his old school], the Liverpool Council mob, the first wife, even our neighbours in Glen Alpine….” (Latham, 2005a: 372). Although Latham has disputed the significance of this incident, it was a disastrous moment for him politically. Just a day before the election, it reminded voters of Latham’s aggressive past and confirmed in many people’s minds a preconscious concern that Latham was bullying, meanspirited and nasty.
It is highly unlikely that Latham could ever have sustained himself as a long-term leader of the Labor party, much less prime minister of Australia, and it is apparent that the notion of “the loner as leader” is a contradiction in terms. The demands of a leader (especially from the Labor side) to energize, engage, inspire and enlarge his party and the community, generally, requires more engagement with other people, more other-directedness, than the self-absorbed Latham could ever have mustered. As the election year progressed, Latham narcissistically equated the concept of “doing it all himself” with that of “leadership”; increasingly it was no longer “middle way”, just “my way”. The imperative to connect with people, to take people with him in politically affirming ways, seemed beyond his capabilities given his dysfunctional psychological make-up.
In essence, it is the writer’s view that — leaving aside his failure to convince voters of his credibility on key policy issues such as mortgage interest rates — Latham was unelectable in 2004; many voters, particularly women, had come to see him as a politically threatening figure who was just too menacing to endorse at the ballot. Beyond the election itself, his personality flaws would have seriously compromised his leadership had he made it into office: his narcissism and grandiosity would have disposed him to risky and unsound decisionmaking, and his paranoia would have been a major obstacle to the effective team building that cabinet leadership requires. Had he become prime minister could he, for example, have trusted the central departments and agencies of government to operate without his detailed explicit direction and control? Could he have handled the subtle requirements of international statecraft, negotiation and nuanced diplomacy, as well as the sensitive requirements of
national security matters? Could he have articulated the aspirations and priorities of an electorate when their ideas and responses on issues of public policy inevitably came to differ from his own? And, most importantly, could he have endured as prime minister, any more than he did as leader of the opposition, the usual slings and arrows of public disapproval and denigration? Could he have been, in other words, a confident, rational, balanced, stable, longterm leader for all the community?
For many Australians for a time it seemed that Latham’s leadership concerns with, inter alia, the ladder of opportunity, a focus on children, and addressing the healthcare needs of an ageing population represented the beginnings of an interesting and engaging new theme in a broader narrative about where Australia was headed as a nation. Latham’s narcissism, however, meant that the longer it went on, the more his leadership seemed like a narrow, selfcentered, one-chapter story about himself and his family.
It may be tempting to think that were he, through his election as PM in 2004, to have been drawn into the ultimate inner circle of his imagination, his narcissistic fantasies would have been realized, his paranoia would have been quelled, and he would have performed brilliantly. The more likely scenario, however, is that the inevitable ebb and flow of political fortune would have precipitated a collapse of just such a kind as saw him depart the political stage in such bizarre circumstances in January 2005. Latham had already had a precursor to just such an anguished withdrawal from public life. In 1998, as the then Labor opposition spokesman for education, he had drafted the opposition’s education policy paper for the upcoming national election. Forwarding it to the opposition leader’s office for clearance, Latham was enraged when his paper was substantially re-written by staff in the leader’s policy unit at the direction of a Labor opposition committee. It was as if he experienced the textual excisions of his paper by his colleagues as a bodily wound, an evisceration of the self, which he could not endure. Feeling humiliated and “treated like dirt”, he said, Latham angrily resigned from his portfolio and took himself off to the isolation of the backbench, where he stayed until returning as opposition treasury spokesman in 2003 (Duffy, 2004: 181).
In his Diaries Latham sets out his reasons for leaving the front bench at that time, and reveals his paranoia as well as his ideal world of intellectual and personal self-sufficiency: I’m better off doing my own thing, the work satisfaction that comes from researching, thinking and writing. I’m better off staying away from people I don’t like and can’t trust. I’ve got nothing to lose. If I had stayed on the front bench they would have tried to constrain and frustrate me, keeping me outside the inner circle, but still locked into Shadow Ministerial discipline. But now I’m free. (Latham, 2005a: 87-88)
Here in one striking passage is Latham’s tragic vision of himself as it ultimately came to pass: the narcissistic loner, rejoicing in his solipsistic isolation, resenting his exclusion from the center of influence, but happily retreating to the protective shell of his imagination, secure from his enemies and revelling in the myth of his splendid self-creation.