CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Can Labor ignore Latham's message?
, October 8, 2005
Labor would be unwise to dismiss the more thoughtful sections of Mark Latham's controversial diaries.It would be a great pity for the Labor Party if the serious and thoughtful sections of Mark Latham's controversial diaries were dismissed along with the vindictive and disloyal sections of the book.
It will certainly take some time for Labor to fully digest the significance of Mr Latham's diaries because many of his former rivals, colleagues, allies and mentors have been wounded, some deliberately, others accidentally.
The problem for Labor in the short term is that Mark Latham "unplugged'' has so excoriated the federal parliamentary Labor Party that senior Labor figures have been forced to adopt the tactic of "ignore and move on".Unhinged
This can only be a temporary response. They cannot dismiss the diaries as merely the writings of a person who has become psychologically unhinged or simply hell-bent on revenge, particularly because it was they as a collective that elected him and supported him as leader.
Furthermore, the book's lengthy introduction contains one of the most succinct and objective analyses of the Labor malaise written in recent times.
The prognosis, according to Latham, is not good. In fact, he despairs about Labor's future at the federal level.
"I no longer regard Labor as a viable force for social justice in this country,'' he writes.
"Its massive cultural and structural problems are insoluble. While the Labor machine is still capable of winning elections, it will not deliver on its original purpose for a fair society.''
Latham identifies several problems inside Labor, including the poisonous and opportunistic internal culture, and the rise of machine politics.
"This is what defines machine politics: the marginalisation of the party's members and the creation of a political oligarchy under the control of a handful of powerbrokers,'' he writes.
"This is the irony of a so-called labour-based party. Inside the ALP, the trade unions do not operate as a voice for workers' interests and representation.
"They function as part of the factional system, providing numbers, resources and patronage for the dominant grouping in each state.''
Mr Latham says Labor has reached the point where "half a dozen union secretaries'' can sit around a table with state secretaries and decide who gets into parliament for a decade or more.
"It's a classic oligarchy, using the tools of patronage and reward for loyalty, and punishment of non-compliance to control the party,'' he writes.
The result of this concentration of power in the hands of a few factional chiefs is the virtual expulsion of independent thinkers and dissidents.
But it goes further, according to Mr Latham, because machine politics has also led to a crisis of belief, gutting the party of grassroots participation.
"The party's defining purpose now revolves around power and patronage, the fuel that sustains its factions but that ultimately drains the True Believers of conviction and belief,'' he writes.
"It has become a conservative institution run by conservative people, the worst elements of machine politics.''
Mr Latham says that, when he joined the ALP as a teenager, an ordinary ALP member could contribute ideas and policy proposals.
"Today, such a notion is absurd. The prospect of local party units influencing the national policy debate is inconceivable,'' he writes.
"Party members do not even try, knowing it to be a waste of time and effort.''
While the ALP is dissected and exposed, Mr Latham also hits out at the great irony of modern society which has become more affluent but poorer at the same time.
"Problems of apathy and disengagement are not restricted to our democracy; they are a defining feature of modern society,'' he writes.
"If families and communities are falling apart, if people feel alienated and empty in their relationships with others, if the bonds of social trust and support are weak, it is hardly surprising that our political parties are dominated by oligarchies.''
Mr Latham says the extraordinary conundrum of Western society is that while the market economy has expanded, community life has been downsized.Social problems
"When Australians see a social problem, they are more likely to pursue a market-based answer than a community solution,'' he writes.
"This has led to the commercialisation of public services and the grotesque expansion of market forces into social relationships.
"While market forces can achieve certain goals, such as increased economic incentive and growth, they are not a good way of running society.
"Such is the treadmill effect in modern society: long working-hours, less time for social relationships, short-term comfort from consumerism, and the need to work hard to finance this habit, which results in a further decline in social capital.''
Sadly, Mr Latham has no answers to either Labor's woes or societies.
In fact, in walking away from public life, he walks away from any solutions.
What's left is for the fractured and injured party to pick up the pieces.