Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Ghost of Mark Latham

Today’s Australian newspaper is painting the Brian Burke scandal as Labor leader Kevin Rudd’s Mark Latham moment. According to the Australian, Rudd is now “engulfed in the biggest scandal” of his short leadership of the party. The same paper may have helped his cause by pointing out Liberal Human Services Minister Ian Campbell also met with Burke in June 2006. Campbell was forced to resign this afternoon.

But the pressure remains on Rudd. The revelations regarding the 2005 Rudd meeting with disgraced Western Australian powerbroker Brian Burke have ended the new ALP leaders honeymoon period in the media. Former WA premier Geoff Gallop had banned state ministers associating with Burke due to his imprisonments for his involvement in the 1980s WA Inc scandal and the 1990s stealing of state campaign funds (the latter conviction was overturned on appeal).

However in 2005 Rudd was working on his Labor leadership challenge and went to WA on a number of occasions to seek Burke’s still influential support. The meetings were organised by Rudd’s friend WA MP Graham Edwards, but they occurred during the period of the Gallop ban. Treasurer Peter Costello dined out on the story this week saying "while a convicted criminal was under a ban from the Western Australian Government, the Leader of the Opposition flew into Perth to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with Mr Brian Burke"

The Government have launched many such attacks on Rudd since the news was made public. Ever since Rudd took the leadership in December, the Liberals have tried to draw parallels between Rudd and former Labor leader Mark Latham. Latham was successfully portrayed as immature and a politician greenhorn after he made a March 2004 pledge to bring Australian troops home from Iraq by Christmas. Although he made some gains, Latham easily lost the 2004 election after leading in the polls earlier in the year.

Latham’s political career was a roller-coaster ride that ended in disgruntled failure and a warts-and-all description of his former political allies in his infamous, but entertaining Latham Diaries. Latham grew up in the tough suburbs of Western Sydney and graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in economics. His first job in politics was as a research assistant to Gough Whitlam. He then entered local politics, getting elected to Liverpool council and becoming mayor in 1991.

In 1994 federal minister John Kerin retired from politics and Latham was elected into Kerin’s seat of Werriwa (also formerly held by Whitlam). As a newly elected backbencher, Latham did not have any significant access to Keating’s Government decision making. In March 1996, John Howard routed Labor in the federal election. The ALP was reduced to 49 seats in a 148 parliament. Latham retained his seat despite a small swing against him. New leader Kim Beazley appointed Latham shadow minister for competition policy and local government and assistant to the shadow treasurer.

Latham’s early years were dominated by rift between him and his fellow frontbenchers over the tariff debate. Labor’s stance was strongly protectionist but Latham was a free trader. He became quickly disillusioned by Beazley’s opportunism and lack of political vision. Labor lost again in 1998 and Latham quit the front bench to write more freely about policy in newspapers and books. He published Civilising Global Capital, an economic tract that received good critical appraisal.

Latham went to the US where he met Clinton’s advisor Dick Morris and became immersed in the debate about Third Way politics advocated by Tony Blair. Other Labor figures criticised Latham for his maverick approach and unorthodox views. Beazley was trying to present a small target while hammering the Government on the introduction of the GST. This strategy seems like bringing success in the 2001 election until the 9/11 attacks and the Tampa controversy landed Howard another victory.

Beazley resigned after this defeat and Latham returned to the frontbench under Simon Crean. While Latham saw Crean as a big improvement over Beazley, the new leader failed to gain any traction in the opinion polls. Latham’s own profile grew hugely in this time. He was promoted into shadow cabinet and the media began to spoke of him as a future leader.

Crean’s opposition to the 2003 Iraqi war was not enough to get him ahead in the polls. Beazley challenged his leadership but was defeated. As a result, Latham was promoted to manager of opposition business. He was quickly elevated to shadow treasurer. Latham established a reputation as a Labor attack dog and made serious inroads on Government ministers. But the game was up for Crean who was eventually asked to step aside by nervous Labor powerbrokers. In an upset, Latham beat Beazley by 47 to 45 votes.

And so in December 2003 Mark Latham became the youngest Labor leader in over a century. 2004 was an election year. Latham was on election footing for most of the year waiting for Howard to make his move. Initially Latham did well, narrowing the gap as preferred PM and leading the Coalition on two Party Preferred.

But it didn’t last. Latham was hammered on his Iraq policy, accused of plagiarism of a Clinton speech, suffered allegations of sexual assault and the Government released a $52 billion pre-election budget. By August, the Labor poll lead was wiped away. At the end of the month, Howard called an election for 9 October to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Scrafton affair. Latham ran a good campaign, made few mistakes and was adjudged the winner in the one debate the two leaders had.

Yet the election ended up a 1.8% swing to the Government. Labor picked up 5 seats but lost another 7. Latham was re-elected party leader after the election. But the year ended with Latham totally disillusioned with the machinations of party politics. While on holidays at the end of the year, he decided to resign to concentrate on his health and his young family. On 18 January 2005, he resigned from the leadership and from parliament.

Many have compared the trajectory and commentary of Latham's leadership with Rudd's. Latham himself was no great fan of Kevin Rudd. In the diaries, Latham described Rudd as a careerist, a technocrat and “a fanatical media networker”. Rudd would probably see the latter trait as a positive. He will need all his skills in that area to undo the Burke damage from the last few days.

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