The Labor Party has lost touch with mainstream Australian concerns partly through a narrow focus on political feminism, Mark Latham told an audience in Melbourne last night.

The former Labor leader criticised “female Labor MPs who regard the gender prism as a frontline political concern”, saying that it led to no policies of relevance to the broader electorate. He gave the example of Anna Burke, Speaker in the last Parliament, who missed out on an opposition frontbench position. “She said that it’s shameful that in the Victorian Right, there was no female frontbencher. But breaking it down that way — according to gender, geography and factionalism — and thinking everyone has to have a slot … no one cares about this,” he said.

“There is no policy oomph from feminist dogma,” Latham continued. “It’s all about quotas and affirmative action, and things that for women in other workplaces are achieved on merit. The political concern about this inside the Labor Party is isolated, inward-looking cultural issue rather than mainstream concern.”

Speaking at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre to spruik his new book, The Political Bubble, Latham criticised many things about the political class — political operatives and journalists who make their living from political activity — that he believes isolated them from mainstream Australian concerns. His book, he revealed, was originally going to be focused on the politics of smear, looking in particular on the Australian Workers’ Union affair, which he says unfairly dogged former prime minister Julia Gillard’s term in office. Gillard had been treated “egregiously” in a way no Australian political figure before had ever been, he said, asking what successful, right-thinking person could possibly want to get involved in a political culture so toxic.

But what about his own part in that? Latham has certainly been happy to dish it out. Grilled by interviewer Jill Singer on comments he made about Gillard’s childlessness, Latham acknowledged he probably shouldn’t have commented at all. In Febuary 2011, Latham wrote in Spectator Australia that ”the femocrats will not like this statement, but I believe it to be true: anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them”. He repeated similar comments in April that year.

Last night, Latham said the comments were “harsh and poorly expressed”. “I said it from my perspective where having children with my wife … far overshadows everything I could contemplate in work or politics.” Latham said he couldn’t understand why anyone would choose a career over having a family. That was why he didn’t miss politics, he said when asked about it earlier, as his life with his family was most important to him, and he did not believe he could be an effective minister and a good father with small children.

But the book isn’t just about the politics of smear, as Latham believed these issues had much to do with the insular nature of Australian politics itself. A culture of self-reliance meant most Australians had far less need for politics, he said. They tuned out and would vote for anyone who could “shake up the system”. This explained the rise of the Palmer United Party vote — “a measure of how politics has become info-tainment”.

“Most large, traditional institutions are struggling when it comes to trust,” Latham said. “The solution is to both broaden the political class, and at the same time, limit what that class can actually affect. There should be community preselections for political candidates, for example, but at the same time, contentious and technical policy-making on areas like climate change should be hived off to RBA-like entities deciding on the policy details and operating at arm’s distance from the government.”

Controversially, Latham believes compulsory voting should be abolished. Disinterested voters only remember three-word slogans, and politics becomes about sloganeering. “Under voluntary voting, parties would have to come up with genuine policies that matter to people to encourage them to go out and vote. For example, Labor would be encouraged to have a genuine climate change policy, while the Liberals would have to encourage their small business base to vote, so would be encouraged to have a genuine industrial revelations policy.”

Voluntary voting would make parties more courageous and genuine instead of skirting around the issues that matter to their core constituents, he said.

Peter Fray

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