August 28th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The Olympics return to Athens ...

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Mark Latham caves in on free trade deal

MARRIAGE ACT: Major triumph for marriage in Australia

FAMILY: Hard-won victory on Marriage Amendment Bill

YOUTH: X and Y generations suffer intergenerational theft

POPULATION PART ONE: What abortion is costing Australia

POPULATION PART TWO: The economic cause of falling fertility

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Growing old disgracefully

FAMILY LAW: Dads bear the burden of proof

THE MEDIA: Mark Latham and Big Brother

CINEMA: FILM REVIEW - Gillo Pontecorvo's 'The Battle of Algiers'

Lies, damned lies and coathangers (letter)

John F. Kennedy's reputation (letter)

Sugar industry sold short (letter)

BOOKS: KOKODA, by Peter FitzSimons

BOOKS: HIS DARK MATERIALS: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

2004 Fighting Fund launched

Books promotion page

Mark Latham and Big Brother

by Tim Wallace

News Weekly, August 28, 2004
Mark Latham has been making a game attempt to press the buttons of Middle Australia, including those of the television remote control. He spurned Kerry O'Brien in favour of Ray Martin, he wouldn't humour the Sunday program but has joked on Rove, and he recently found time to hang out on the set of Big Brother.

Latham did have the sense to decline an offer to appear on Big Brother as an "intruder" - as if he needs that kind of exposure - but he was still willing to creep around backstage, reeling off some glib lines about evicting John Howard (speech-writer to the diary-room, please), gawking through the two-way mirrors at the contestants within (a true Through the Looking Glass moment) and asking after the domestic habits of his favourite housemate Miriam, the Mexican pre-operative transsexual who entered the house on the pretext of teaching the housemates some spicy salsa moves (which is one way to court those trendy inner-city voters who might find his family-man persona too conventional).

Perhaps Latham felt a connection. His rising star had, after all initially promised a few daring moves too. "Get in, sit down, put on your seat belt and hang on!" one caucus supporter had enthused following his elevation to the federal leadership last year. But a ride to a theme park for cheesy lines and chit-chat about transsexuals?


Such is the banality of modern politics that even members of the press found it a bit rich. Murdoch scribe Chris Jones, with tabloid efficiency, described Latham as "enthralled for minutes" by the housemates having lunch. Fairfax correspondent Mark Todd recounted Latham "staring, mouth agape" through the mirrors, then unable to hide his excitement on seeing one of the housemates wearing a Midnight Oil singlet.

"What on earth is the Labor leader doing?" demanded Alan Ramsey in his Sydney Morning Herald column. "And what sort of genius thinks this sort of rubbish presents their man in his best light as an alternative Prime Minister?"

You can learn a lot from watching television, and something from the television that people like to watch. Latham might have stayed away from Big Brother but for the fact he is a fan himself - indeed was happy to declare that he had watched more of this year's series than any of the previous three.

That's an interesting admission in itself. Before he became leader he might have been too busy writing books; now he's indulging in the prurient and superficial contrivances of high-gloss media voyeurism - and he's also watching more reality TV.

More interesting, though, is what else Latham likes to watch on Sunday night - or more to the point does not. Asked a few weeks ago if he would watch the screening of the BBC documentary My Foetus on the ABC's Compass program, he responded that he would probably be sound asleep in bed by then. He added for good measure: "I haven't got any interest in the subject matter."

There are obvious reasons why Latham would retreat from the media-generated controversy whipped about a program showing the everyday business of destroying a four-week-old foetus with a vacuum pump.

First, there are the tensions within his own party, which as the Senate conscience vote on human cloning and harvesting of embryo stem-cells indicated, is still not completely in the thrall of moral relativism, though the "progressive" view on reproductive rights most certainly rules the roost (as it effectively does within Coalition ranks as well).

Second, there is the question of whether there are any votes in it, and judging by his comments Latham clearly feels there are not.

Third, there is the way in which these things play out in the media, which is keen to foster controversy with selective and sensationalist reportage, as shown by the way any passing reference made by Tony Abbott to abortion invariably becomes headline news.

"As in common in most modern discussions, the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion." So wrote G.K. Chesterton in What's Wrong With the World almost a century ago, and nothing has changed. Instead we have a phoney media debate about whether My Foetus should even be shown on TV, as if a procedure that is carried out in Australia an estimated 100,000 times each year (a ratio of one abortion to every two births) is too taboo to be aired.

So it is that while Latham can comfortably endorse a vacuous game show, he shies away from offering any reflection on one of the most profound social issues of our time - in fact shies away from even showing any interest.

It's the sort of performance befitting a Big Brother winner - the larrikin who likes to share a laugh but knows better than to express strong views or get involved in an argument. Latham might hope that the same strategy can carry him to victory.

  • Tim Wallace

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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