The dark side of The Latham Diaries

Thursday, 29 September 2005

Mark Latham has had a lot to say about a lot of people in the last few weeks. Many Australians have been appalled at Latham’s outburst. Others - predominantly those who’ve read the book - are less offended. But how did blackfellas and the issues nearest and dearest to them fare in The Latham Diaries?

Did the former Leader of the Opposition have any great vision for uniting black and white Australia? Plans for a treaty? Any hint of an affection for the first Australians?

In more than 400 pages charting Latham’s decade-long career in politics, only one Aboriginal person draws a mention - Cape York Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, who Latham describes as 'charismatic'.

As for Indigenous issues, they do appear, albeit infrequently. This excerpt is from February 1, 2004 about Latham’s first speech as Opposition Leader to the ALP’s national convention.

(One of the business lobby groups in Canberra played computer games with its copy of my opening speech, decoding the various drafts and changes to it, and then gave them to Costello’s office. Sloppy staff work at our end, it was sent out in the wrong format. No lasting harm from Costello’s quasi-attack, just a nuisance distraction... One for the memory bank.)

Except that Latham forgot to mention in the diary what it was that was axed from the speech. Keen observers of Indigenous affairs will recall one of items removed was a promise to issue a national apology to the Stolen Generations.

It’s been a long-standing ALP policy, and in fact remains so to this day. So either Latham felt an apology to the Stolen Generations wasn’t important enough to mention, or he was simply trying to be seen as someone who wouldn’t pander to the blackfellas.

Either way, he definitely didn’t see it as important enough to even acknowledge in his diaries. It’s a telling excerpt from The Latham Diaries because it sums up the book’s insight into Latham’s thinking on black issues - simply that they predominantly didn’t appear on his political radar, but when they did, it was time to tread very, very carefully.

What most in Indigenous affairs are wondering is how Latham diarises his role in the abolition of ATSIC, the nation’s former peak democratically-elected Indigenous body which was axed by the Howard government earlier this year.

On April 3, 2004 Latham writes: “[Tim] Gartrell (the ALP national secretary) had a tip-off from within the bureaucracy that the Government was about to abolish ATSIC, trying to wedge us. I pre-empted them by getting in first: our plan is to replace ATSIC with a community-based model of Aboriginal governance, the [Noel] Pearson model (a prominent Aboriginal leader from Cape York). The golden rule: repair the foundations of Left-of-Centre policy before the Tories exploit any weakness. And there are many weaknesses at ATSIC: corruption etc.”

There’s at least three major problems with Latham’s position.

Firstly, Tim Gartrell’s information was not correct. Government sources revealed to NIT earlier this year that the federal cabinet had accepted, in principle, that the government would abolish the national ATSIC Board, but retain the ATSIC regional council structure. This was more in-line with recommendations from the ATSIC Review completed in 2003. If Latham’s entry is correct, then Gartrell was either deliberately fed misinformation, misunderstood the information provided to him, or his sources weren’t so well-placed.

Secondly, the model the ALP put forward was rejected by Pearson.

And thirdly, government audit after government audit into ATSIC throughout the entire life of the peak Indigenous body never found one scrap of evidence of significant corruption on the part of ATSIC’s elected representatives, or officials.

Latham had simply swallowed the line being run by the Howard government and most sections of the mainstream media. His attempt to remove one wedge ended up resulting in the creation of another and, after failing to win government, guess who was left to pick up the pieces? Aboriginal people.

It’s a fact not lost on Larissa Behrendt, a Professor of Law and Indigenous Studies from the University of Technology, Sydney.

“The book wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. As an outsider to the Labor Party, it gave me what I felt was a better idea of the internal workings of party, areas I had no idea about,” Prof Behrendt says.

“It gave me pause to reflect that a lot of criticism I’d heard about the diaries was focussed on the fact he bit the hand that fed him, rather than disputing what he actually said... the talking out of school seems to be what outraged people the most.

“But from an Indigenous perspective I found two things [in The Latham Diaries] very sobering,” Prof Behrendt says. “The first is his lack of reflection about the role he had in the demise of ATSIC and the impact he had on Aboriginal communities. It’s not something that I think registered with him.”

Prof Behrendt also can’t escape the feeling Latham comes out looking a little hypocritical in his treatment of Aboriginal people.

“Latham says the ALP is a party that’s very focussed on winning elections.

“In the early days, you can see he feels that in his electorate, the heartland of western Sydney, there’s no votes in Aboriginal affairs. Mark Latham recognises the change in make-up of his electorate, and the challenges it poses to him. He tracks their increasing self-interest away from broader social issues. But his response to that is to try to give [the voters] what they want to get re-elected - he’s quite frank in saying that’s part of his agenda.

“As an Indigenous person reading the diaries, it leaves me thinking that getting people within the Labor Party to refocus on social justice issues is going to be a big challenge.

“Second to that, the people from our experience who have been quite active on Indigenous issues, like Bob McMullan, Carmen Lawrence and now Peter Garrett... well, it makes you question the potential of those people to influence a party if it’s being driven the way Mark Latham describes it.”

What Prof Behrendt is referring to is by far the most damaging claim Latham makes in the book on Aboriginal issues. And to give you an idea of how explosive it is, it’s the only Indigenous aspect of the book that was picked up by the mainstream media.

November 1, 2004, page 369: “Lunch with [Mark] Arbib at Azuma’s in Sydney. It’s interesting to listen to these machine guys: they live in a world of non-stop political manoeuvres and gossip, no structured thoughts about making society better. Their only points of reference in public life are polling and focus groups. And so it is with Arbib. Some snippets from him. The focus groups show... that it’s popular to bash the blacks: ‘You need to find new issues, like attacking land rights, get stuck into all the politically correct Aboriginal stuff - the punters love it’. Maybe he should have had lunch with Pauline Hanson, though not at Azuma’s.”

This entry is shortly after Latham’s election defeat. Arbib is the secretary of the NSW branch of the ALP. For his part, Arbib vehemently denies any such conversation took place with Latham and last week publicly stated he is considering launching a defamation action.

But according to the diaries, the ALP already had form on this front.

This, from April 18, 1996: “Yesterday’s Shadow Ministry had a robust discussion on Aboriginal affairs. Most of the Shadows want to join the Government in putting the blackfellas out to dry - give them a bit of a kicking to win votes in middle-class suburbia, Queensland and WA. And I thought I was a hard bastard.”

And here’s where things get a little difficult for Latham, at least on the hypocrisy front, because he’s been accused of doing precisely the same thing.

After his election defeat, Latham wrote this diary entry, on October 25, 2004.

“Another nightmare: my decision to create an inner Shadow Cabinet of seventeen... it has been a tortuous exercise, trying to manage so many egos. You wouldn’t believe the tickets these people have on themselves. Kerry O’Brien was hopeless in the last term of Parliament, yet he sees himself as a hotshot, so I had a half-hour slanging match on the phone, trying to get him to accept reality.”

Senator O’Brien was the ALP’s spokesperson on Aboriginal affairs in the lead-up to the 2004 election. Latham’s use of the term “hopeless” to describe O’Brien is out of step with the views of many in Indigenous affairs - O’Brien was widely regarded as one of the most effective opposition spokespersons on Indigenous affairs in the past few decades.

Senator O’Brien declined to comment on The Latham Diaries, but you can’t help but get the feeling that when Latham uses the term “hopeless”, he’s not talking in the context of O’Brien’s parliamentary performance. Particularly not when you know something that Latham left out of his diary.

ALP sources confirmed to NIT that throughout the election campaign - and during the ‘slanging match’ - Latham repeatedly accused O’Brien of “not going hard enough” on ATSIC.

But having announced the ALP would abolish ATSIC if elected, how much harder did Latham expect O’Brien could go? To borrow briefly from Latham’s vernacular, he left his shadow minister to eat a s**t sandwich.

Another diary entry from Latham (March 21, 1996) sheds a little light on O’Brien’s no win position (and Latham’s view of Indigenous affairs).

“After the election, [Beazley] was wrapping me all over the place, building up expectations about my role on the frontbench, but then he tried to slot me into Aboriginal affairs. After Robert Tickner’s experience, it’s a death seat for Labor MPs. With Leo [McLeay’s] help, I got out of there to take on some economic jobs.”

What killed Tickner (politically) was the Hindmarsh Island affair. As Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the Keating government, Tickner crusaded on behalf of the women who had been accused of making up the claim of ‘Secret Women’s Business’. As the public mood shifted against the women, the ALP hung Tickner out to dry (Tickner’s position - and the honesty of the women - was eventually vindicated).

A central theme in Latham’s book is about precisely what happened to Tickner - the constant undermining of party members not by Coalition forces, but from within party ranks.

Latham calls it the politics of personal destruction and alleges throughout the diaries that factions within the ALP led long-running smear campaigns against him, focussing on his ‘reputation with women’.

The media - who Latham clearly despises - lapped it up.

Someone who knows a bit about the politics of personal destruction - probably even more than Latham - is Geoff Clark, the much-maligned former chair of ATSIC.

Of all the people in the public eye who’ve commented on The Latham Diaries, you could probably most forgive Clark for poking the former Opposition leader in the eye.

It was Latham who opened the door to abolish ATSIC, and it was Latham who first called for Clark to be sacked when he was convicted of hindering police after an incident at a Warrnambool Hotel in 2002 (Clark was sacked, and later reinstated after beating the government in court twice on an unfair dismissal claim). But Clark is surprisingly forgiving on this front.

“In some ways I do understand why he made that statement that ATSIC had to go - he was shadowing the Prime Minister, but he got out-boxed,” Clark says.

“And I can understand why he refused to meet with me. I think he probably had good reason. It might have been a bit too close for comfort for him (given the rumours that were being circulated about Latham and women).

“Some people can confront the system and take allegations and rumours through the legal process. But some still tend to want to hide behind the allegation or the misinformation.

“I can certainly say some unkind things about Latham, but I don’t think it’s necessary to attack personalities. I’ve never been one for that. But I’ve got to say, I was very impressed with him on the Denton show. It was the Latham that could have been - uninhibited by party politics, free-thinking. Unfortunately, people like Latham come along with a little free thinking, but then he’s stymied. I think the party machine has some soul searching to do on that - it has to do an analysis of itself.”

The ALP’s shadow parliamentary secretary on Indigenous Affairs, Warren Snowdon has not read The Latham Diaries, although he plans to at some stage. He is, however, still in a unique position to comment.

As the Member for Lingiari in the Northern Territory, a significant percentage of Snowdon’s constituents are Aboriginal. In addition to that, Snowdon was a Latham supporter, and a quite unintentionally famous one. On the eve of the 2003 leadership ballot between Kim Beazley and Latham, Snowdon was half a world away in New York.

Snowdon intended to vote for Latham, so Latham’s camp not unreasonably asked the Beazley camp to exclude one of their supporters from the ballot, thus making the vote a fair contest. Beazley’s camp refused, forcing Snowdon to make an overnight dash back to Australia in time for the ballot.

It was reported at the time as an indication of just how bloody-minded Beazley and his supporters were - and according to Latham, still are.

Regardless of his past support, Snowdon expresses disappointment at Latham’s attack on the party, but he acknowledges Latham does raise some important issues and agrees the ALP has some soul-searching to do.

“I’m very disappointed at the decision he’s taken since the election and I’m disappointed in particular because he didn’t take those people who gave him their all, into his confidence,” Snowdon says.

“There were 47 people who voted for him (to win the leadership of the ALP), all of them to a person would have been extremely disappointed with the way he left the parliament, the party and the leadership.

“And I’m sure all are now disappointed in the way in which he’s attacked the party, or at least he’s reported to have done and certainly in some excerpts has done.

“If we all took the same attitude you wouldn’t have a Labor Party and the organisation is a bloody sight bigger than the individual.

“That’s not to say, of course, that some of the underlying issues raised, including the culture of the party and some of the fiefdoms, need to be addressed and debated.

“But I think the reporting of the book has lost those issues behind some of the, shall we say ‘colourful ways’ he’s described individuals.”

Snowdon also says Latham’s recollections of shadow ministers wanting to hang blackfellas out to dry to win popularity with voters is not consistent with his experience within the ALP.

“That hasn’t been the case in my personal experience. Kim Beazley, for example... his family has a strong history of advocacy of Indigenous issues. Kim’s father was responsible for the tabling of a bark petition into federal parliament and Kim’s had an historical association with many of the [major Indigenous] issues. I wouldn’t agree he would ever have made those sorts of judgements [alleged by Latham], nor would Simon Crean.

“That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t people in sections of the party who see themselves as supporting the advocacy position of the right, in the way described by Latham. But it’s certainly not my experience with the leadership of the party.

“I think some of the past shadow [Indigenous affairs spokespeople] have acquitted themselves very well... people like [Daryl] Melham, Carmen Lawrence, [Kerry] O’Brien, [Bob] McMullan. All had a significant interest in advancing the interests of Indigenous people.”

The black bits of The Latham Diaries

FOLLOWING are all of the extracts from The Latham Diaries which mention Indigenous issues, and are not featured elsewhere in NIT’s feature. We’ve added editor’s notes to some of the entries to assist the read.

“Outer suburban electorates like mine are a minority in Parliament. That’s why we’re always getting stuffed over for funding and services. In Werriwa, the feeling is that money is going to the wrong minority: the unemployed, the arts community, blacks, migrants and any other group that can con the Government into giving them a grant. It’s a really punishing mood. I’ve got make sure they don’t give me too much punishment on polling day.”

- July 25, 1995, page 38

“Part of our problem is that Howard has inverted the politics of envy. Traditionally, Labor has benefited from the Australian ethos of cutting down tall poppies - it matched our passion for redistributing resources and attacking inequality. But now the middle class is more inclined to look down the social ladder (at the small poppies), envious of the (undeserved) government money paid to the unemployed migrants, Aborigines and the rest of the underclass. The long-running sensationalism of the tabloid media on these issues has had an impact.”

- February 4, 1997, page 57

“With an election likely before the end of the year, I’m hitting the shopping centre in Werriwa. The problem of downward envy is worse than ever. The punters hate it when one characteristic of life (such as race or gender) determines access to government support, regardless of the poverty and disadvantage people face across their entire lives. It’s the folly of segmentation: policy-makers looking at just one segment of life instead of the whole situation. At Glenquarie shops this morning, which services the Macquarie Fields public housing estate, I was given two stories that confirm the mood. I don’t know how true they are, but the perceptions are powerful. A grandmother claimed that special education at the local school was available only to Aboriginal kids. A mum enrolled for a TAFE cooking course said that they asked if she was Aboriginal. ‘I wish’, she said, because this would have given her an exemption on the $60 enrolment fee. She’s got the arse hanging out of her pants and wants to know why poor people are not exempt. Fair play, fair question.” - July 18, 1998, page 78

“Last Monday, I gave a big speech on welfare policy at the Brisbane Institute, sharing a platform with Noel Pearson, the charismatic Aboriginal activist from Cape York. I stressed the social dimension of poverty, the need for self-esteem and community-building, using the example and inspiration of social entrepreneurs in south-west Sydney. The similarities between Pearson’s conclusions and mine were striking: welfare dependency is a social, not financial, issue. The welfare state works under the assumption that the poor are hopeless and only government intervention can solve poverty. In fact, this ‘pity the poor’ ethos is the real problem - it sees welfare as an equation in dollars and cents, instead of an equation between people. Basic self-esteem and trust have broken down. The state needs to find new and innovative ways of rebuilding social capital by identifying community leaders and backing successful projects. It needs to be a junior partner to communities, not the reverse.”

- July 31, 1999, page 109

“[Tony] Abbott’s naivety about public housing reminds me of that great story by Nugget Coombs about Harold Holt when he was PM: ‘Holt could not believe the result of the 1967 referendum recognising Aborigines as Australian citizens. It was just after the referendum and he said, “You know, Nugget, I’ve never spoken to one, I don’t think I’ve ever met one”. But he was sympathetic and wanted advice about the institutions the Commonwealth should establish’. For the Tories, ignorance is bliss.”

- January 6, 2000, page 127

“The government is going to come at Beazley on two fronts: he spends too much and he caves in to the unions. He seems like a nice guy, but it’s deceiving. Kim’s key task is to prove to the public that he is hungry and tough enough by taking on one of our sacred cows: welfare reform, Aboriginal affairs, the rights agenda or the unions. Michael Costello has got him yelling at the despatch box, but it won’t work. He needs to improve his content, not his volume. This is what the new politics is about: defining yourself by provoking the right kind of opponents. That’s when a cynical electorate knows you mean it.”

- May 10, 2000, page 133

“That’s it for me with the Daily Telegraph. I lodged a tidy piece on Noel Pearson and Aboriginal welfare for today’s paper but it has been butchered - bits left out, bits in the wrong place, barely readable the way they have presented it.”

- October 1, 2001, page 169

“I made [Nicola] Roxon the Shadow Attorney General and put [Robert] McClelland into a consolidated Homeland Security position... I gave the hapless Kerry O’Brien Aboriginal Affairs, shifting my mate Gavan O’Connor back into agriculture.”

- December 13, 2003, page 255. Ed’s note: O’Brien was Latham’s shadow spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs. Contrary to Latham’s view, O’Brien was widely regarded within Aboriginal affairs as the most effective and active opposition voice on black issues since Daryl Melham in 2000.

“There are... things we need to do to get the Party back on its feet... overcome Howard’s wedge, and anticipate any new wedge issues he may throw at us. No more crouching in the grass. Plus redefine the symbolic issues of the Left in terms of traditional Labor values. We want the children out of detention centres, not because of UN Conventions, but because we care for our children, and they deserve a better life. We want to say sorry to the Stolen Generations, not because of indigenous rights, but because of family values....”

- January 4, 2004, page 260

“Lunch with [Mark] Arbib at Azuma’s in Sydney. It’s interesting to listen to these machine guys: they live in a world of non-stop political manoeuvres and gossip, no structured thoughts about making society better. Their only points of reference in public life are polling and focus groups. And so it is with Arbib. Some snippets from him. The focus groups show... that it’s popular to bash the blacks: ‘You need to find new issues, like attacking land rights, get stuck into all the politically correct Aboriginal stuff - the punters love it’. Maybe he should have had lunch with Pauline Hanson, though not at Azuma’s.”

- November 1, 2004, page 369. Ed’s note: This entry is after Latham’s election defeat. Arbib - the secretary of the NSW branch of the ALP, strongly denies any such conversation took place with Latham and last week publicly stated he is considering launching a defamation action.

“So where do we go from here? It’s horseshit to say we need to shift to the Left, per the Barry Jones remedy, or to the Right, the Billy Shorten solution. Were we too far to the Right on the environment, schools funding, saving Medicare or getting out of Iraq? Were we too far to the Left on the abolition of ATSIC, redefining multiculturalism, holding the line on refugees, on gay marriage or our welfare-to-work policy...? I don’t believe in the old ideologies. We are a modern progressive party, breaking down the old Establishment and dispersing power to citizens and communities - the enabling state. We don’t do things because they are Left- or Right-wing, we do them because they are right. So I reject the Jones and Shorten analyses.”