A stranger unto himself

By Christopher Pearson:

September 18, 2004

IF Mark Latham becomes prime minister in three weeks, it will be the first time the public has installed someone in the Lodge whom it barely knows. There have been a few print and television profiles, Michael Duffy's biography and some instant books. But surprisingly little serious attention - as opposed to journalistic puffery - has been devoted to him.

As an Opposition Leader, he's constrained to be whatever will get him elected. As prime minister he'd have carte blanche to be himself. So the question - what is Latham really like? - has some urgency about it. The trouble is that there are so few who could answer it.

The most reliable of them may be the man himself and much of what he has to say is disturbing. He has never resiled from the class warrior's description of himself he gave The Bulletin: "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."

Although it's not the way well-adjusted people work, Latham -- who once described himself as "a maddie" -- sees it as normal. "Well, everyone's got hate in their lives. I mean, it's just part of life ... I hope my little boy hates a Liberal prime minister who sells out our national interests.

"I grew up in a family that used to hate Bob Menzies. You know, my grandparents and their first education they gave me in politics, you know, what's wrong with having those feelings about people who you think are hurting the country? If you are a good Australian, that's a natural feeling, I would have thought."

Along with tribal hatreds, licensed violence is part of being a good Australian. "Look, this idea that politics can be too rough and too personal is a bit rich. I can take you to any sports field any Saturday morning and show you parents getting stuck into it. Having a go at the ref, yelling abuse. It's part of the Australian way. We're not a namby-pamby nation that hides its feelings. I think we're a nation that's willing to call a spade a spade and, if need be, to pick up the spade and hit someone over the head with it."

The journalists' nickname for him, "Biff", is jokey recognition of Latham's violent hoon streak. Apart from the taxi driver with a broken arm, there were two other incidents, from his term as mayor of Liverpool, that his minders couldn't cover up.

One involved a delivery driver he punched for running into municipal planter boxes. The other was a kind of road rage. A fellow-councillor was following him - trying to confirm that a council car was being used for private business - and the mayor hit the brakes. The councillor said: "The bastard didn't give a damn if I skidded off the road and killed myself."

At this distance it's hard to know how much weight to attach to these events. Suffice it to say that when Frank Devine reported them in The Australian, there was no attempt at rebuttal from Latham's office.

Closer to home, when his first wife, Gabrielle Gwyther, said that at the end of the marriage she was increasingly worried by his mood swings, he accused her of misrepresenting matters.

When it comes to divorced partners' conflicting accounts, it's usually possible to get some sense of what was happening from close friends of the couple. But Latham doesn't appear to have any really close friends, apart from people who are also political associates. There are mentors and ex-mentors, former friends left behind as he climbed the ladder of opportunity and the drinking mates who gathered for his bucks' show at the auto repair workshop in Fourth Avenue, Austral. It would only have taken a couple of them to come forward and plausibly vouch that he wasn't given to mood swings for Gwyther's story to be discounted.

As it is, her version of life with Latham is one of the few that seems free of embellishment. When Gwyther says that if they visited her parents' house for dinner, he'd get bored, switch off, go off and sleep or read the paper, why should we doubt that he was a boorish son-in-law? When she says that on her 30th birthday he had the proprietor of a Pakistani restaurant screen a pornographic video, Freaks of Nature, to confront her genteel family, and her sister confirms the story, why should we doubt them and take at face value his blanket denial?

Gwyther says that, as he vacillated in an agony of indecision between her and his new wife, Janine Lacy, for the better part of a year, the best he could offer as an excuse was to tell her: "I'm a narcissist." She says: "It's really all about him ... he just did not know an appropriate way to handle it."

Just how much at a loss he was becomes apparent when you reflect on the last card he sent her. "Dear Gabbie, I'm thinking of you and the wonderful things that happened from meeting you 11 years ago. I'm getting better and stronger every day. All my love, Mark."

Gwyther was at a bit of a loss herself when she received it because they'd been living apart for seven months at the time. What could he possibly have meant to convey, or was he simply, for his own peace of mind, conjuring up the semblance of a happy ending to substitute for the reality of a messy separation? The lingering uncertainty here is: how much self-knowledge does he have? The most striking evidence on that question comes from the celebrated press conference where Latham, who days earlier had been joking about press intrusions, sobbed and asked for his family's privacy to be respected.

He offered the following summary of himself: "What you see is what you get. There's no big secret about me. I get stuck in and have a go on the things I believe in. I enjoy Australian larrikinism as well, as a way of life - you know, I think it is great to have mates and enjoy jokes the Australian way. That is a big part of my character. I'm proud of it. It's one of the things that makes me proud to be an Australian. So that's my best description of who I am."

It was staged for prime-time television, so it's reasonable to assume deliberation and that he meant what he said. Yet it sounds like a bogan parody from Roy and HG. What on earth can he have meant by larrikinism as a way of life? What's so special about having mates and enjoying jokes? Why in particular would it make him proud to be an Australian? Isn't this a version of Pauline Hanson's strategy of draping herself in the flag?

Clearly, whatever else, it was intended as the rallying cry of Western Suburbs Man. But instead, coming from a highly educated man who's an accomplished speaker, it seems merely to patronise and caricature the people it's meant to ingratiate. Or can it be that Latham really thinks of himself in these terms, at least some of the time? If so, are we dealing with someone who's a lifelong stranger to himself?

This article originally appeared in "The Australian" newspaper here

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