Right now, I imagine Mark Latham is pretty pleased with his lot in life.
Look at his career up until now – a failed Labor leader who led his party to a crushing defeat against John Howard (with a net loss of four Lower House seats), who occupied the leader’s chair for only 13 months and resigned without ever having held a ministerial position. Once out of politics, he distinguished himself by writing The Latham Diaries. I’ve read that book, and I’ve rarely had to wade through such a sustained rant. Latham’s rage made Andrew Bolt look like a moderately annoyed person on Valium. From time to time since then he’s popped up to give his two cents’ worth, and he’s proved one thing – he’s never slow to give his opinions, as forcefully as possible. He described the 2007 election as ‘the Seinfeld election, an election about nothing’, described his fellow politicians as ‘miserable arsewipes’ and is pretty free with words like ‘arrogant’ and ‘incompetent’.
He’s good value for the media – and so I suppose it was inevitable that they would trot him out during this election. He was guaranteed to generate some juicy sound bites, and he certainly delivered. You certainly couldn’t fault Sky News for that.
But was it necessary to treat him like an elder statesman full of political wisdom? Did we really need not one, but two interviews in quick succession – the second a dedicated prime time half-hour, advertised breathlessly and spruiked for days beforehand? And that’s only what we’ve seen so far. There are three weeks to go in this campaign. Will we see an interview a week? (good grief, I hope not).
And for what? Did we actually get any real analysis, any considered judgement?
No. We got to see Latham enjoying himself in the spotlight, basking in the flattery of Sky’s Paul Murray, who described him as a man with ‘obvious insight’. Insight into what, exactly? Apparently, Latham was the man with the good word on the leaks plaguing the Australian Labor Party.
Now, no one knows who has been leaking stories to Laurie Oakes. The man himself isn’t saying, protecting his sources as a good journalist should. Speculation runs hot, and inevitably the eye falls on Kevin Rudd. There’s no evidence whatsoever to confirm that – but that doesn’t matter to Latham. It’s Rudd all right, being a ‘snake’ and ‘unmanly’. Rudd, the ‘serial leaker’. Rudd, who loved being Prime Minister only because it meant he was able to socially network with world leaders and be followed around by the media. Rudd, who was so angry about being dumped that he thought to himself, ‘if I can’t have it no one else can either’, and ran to the phone.
Rudd should ‘be a man … have some honour’, says Latham. Holding himself up as a model of integrity, Latham wants us to believe that he is more honourable than Rudd because he puts his name to what he says. Gillard should have made Rudd the Defence Minister, or Minister for Foreign Affairs, and sent him to Afghanistan – with the clear implication that maybe the Taliban would take care of the ‘Rudd problem’ once and for all.
Latham offered not one shred of proof. He didn’t have to – because Paul Murray accepted every word of it. There was no challenge, no ‘but wait, how do you know? Can you prove it?’ Murray was almost worshipful in his treatment of Latham – and in fact had said at the beginning of the program how much he admired the man. It was not an interview. It was Paul Murray fawning at Latham’s feet and giving him a stage.
And for what? Rumour-mongering and insults. Swinging voters are ‘apathetic’, according to Latham – they put their kids to bed, watch Masterchef and make up their minds how to vote depending on what campaign ad they last saw. The ALP’s Jason Clare ‘might as well be a ventriloquist’s doll’, because he’s not a real person. Rudd is a coward and a snake. All this, from a man who shakes his head and tut-tuts about those who attack the person rather than the policy because it’s ‘the easy way to make the point’.
The same man, by the way, who used his book to describe his parliamentary colleagues as ‘execrable’ and ‘dirty dogs’, and railed against ‘the new political correctness’ in a speech to Parliament decrying those who were asking for a civil debate.
Another failed leader, the Liberal’s John Hewson, appears regularly both on Sky and on ABC News 24’s The Drum. His contributions are thoughtful, consistently fair, and bring with them all the experience of both his political and post-political life (which includes extensive engagement with business and membership in the Trilateral Commission). He speaks bluntly (without being insulting), reasonably, and takes his lumps when his own failings are pointed out. Well before the election was called, he was taking part in a regular panel on Sky’s AM Agenda program, and has proved himself as a valuable commentator on Australian politics.
The contrast between Hewson and Latham could not be stronger, yet it is Latham who gets the dedicated air time, and Latham whose sound-bites make it onto other networks and are incorporated into Sky News’ promotional ads.
Latham could not be more irrelevant to this election, but today, his opinions – stated as fact – are all over the various news programs, Twitter and Facebook. Ironically, given how irrelevant I think he is, I’m even blogging about him here. The media are peppering Labor politicians for comments on Latham’s words. Quite rightly, they have pretty much all come out and said words to the effect of, ‘Oh please, do I have to dignify his rantings with a comment?’ Apparently they do, because the media are making a lot of hay out of their refusal to engage. Why aren’t they defending Rudd, the commentators ask?
Perhaps because they know – even if the media don’t – that you should never feed a troll. And that’s what Latham is in this campaign. He’s a troll, and the more attention he gets, the more influence he’ll have over the campaign.