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Arse-Licking Hypocrisy

As Federal Parliament begins to wind down for the winter recess, we are again being treated to an outbreak of hypocrisy and cant from the Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, on behalf of the government.

Mark Latham, MHR for WerriwaAbbott has likened Labor MHR Mark Latham’s comments on political hatred to the causes of the Middle East conflict.

Abbott also attacked Latham’s criticism of John Howard’s visit to the United States as an exercise in arse-licking, describing these comments as vile and vulgar.

  • May 03, 2002: Mark Latham’s remarks on Tony Staley and muscling up:
  • Jun 26, 2002: Mark Latham discusses his “arse-licking” comments:
  • Jun 26, 2002: Abbott and Howard in the House of Representatives:

In an interview with The Bulletin, published today, Latham says of his attitude to politics:

“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 our 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 whack someone over the head with it..

“It’s not about debating points, which is how the press gallery tends to see it. It’s about psychological warfare. All of us in there have a sense of who we can beat and who we’re worried about. And when you get to a point where there aren’t too many on the other side who worry you, that’s when you’ll start winning elections.”

The interviewer, Maxine McKew, says there is more than a touch of Paul Keating about Latham’s approach to politics, quoting Latham as saying:

“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. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness. I hate the way, for instance, Howard tries to appeal to suburban values when I know that he hasn’t got any real answers to the problems and challenges we face. I hate the phoniness of that.”

Of Howard’s recent visit to the United States, where the Prime Minister delivered a fawning speech to Congress, Latham said:

“Howard is an arse-licker. He went over there, kissed some bums, and got patted on the head. But from our point of view, the big national interest argument was about the US farm bill. He should have used that address to the Congress to throw back at the Americans all their empty rhetoric about free trade. Instead, he said the obvious platitudes and made no impact on their thinking. So who’s backing Australia’s interest and who’s not?”

Of the Treasurer, Peter Costello, Latham said:

“Peter Costello is a champagne Charlie. The only constant in his political career is the image makeover. He believes in nothing but himself. He is the great Narcissus of Australian politics.”

Latham, best-known as a proponent of a new “third way” approach to politics, modelled in part on the actions of the Blair government in Britain, argues that the so-called “aspirational voters” of the suburbs can be won over by a Labor Party that engages with their concerns:

“They’re not lost to us. They just think we’ve been on vacation for six years. They still share Labor’s knockabout egalitarian values but they want to know that Labor is still there for them as they climb the economic ladder. And that is a good Labor aspiration.”

Latham compares the current political climate with the 1950s when the ALP was “wedged” by the issue of communism. “Wedge politics” is a term used to describe a situation where one side of politics is able to drive a wedge between its opponents and the electorate to such an extent that the opponents are themselves divided on how to respond. This is clearly the case at present with the division in the ALP over the appropriate response to the issue of asylum-seekers and other social issues, such as welfare reform and crime.

Latham says the solution is to follow the approach adopted by Gough Whitlam as Opposition Leader from 1967:

Right through the 1950s and ’60s, Labor was wedged on communism. We were seen as too soft to deal with the communist bogey. And we kept losing. So what did Gough do? He shifted the agenda. To the concerns of suburban Australia. He talked about schools and hospitals and cities. The lesson is identical today.”

Latham argues for the return of cities, suburban services and infrastructure to the political agenda. He calls for the ALP to attack the conservatives on those issues of safety and security which they currently “own”:

“We’ve got to have something to say about building a trusting society. At the moment, people are saying, ‘Why should I trust an asylum-seeker when I don’t even have any trust about what’s happening on my own street?’ We’ve got to re-engage and develop a whole string of policies around what I call civic socialism. The conservatives will always want to punish people. But the bigger challenge is to build strong communities. And we all know the biggest predictor of whether people feel safe is not how many cops are on the beat, but whether or not you know your neighbours. In having people who’ll look out for the kid down the road who’s gone off the rails.”

Latham is seen as something of a loose cannon by many people on all sides of politics. He is seen as prone to “outbursts”, such as with his recent description of Tony Staley as a “deformed character”. (Listen above.) Much has been made of his physical encounter with a Sydney taxi-driver last year.

Others, however, see Latham as a future leader of the ALP and as one of the few “characters” in politics these days, a point highlighted recently by the death of John Gorton. In an era of colourless, opinion-poll obsessed abdication of leadership, Latham is possibly the future for an Opposition struggling to distinguish itself from the coalition.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 8, 2002, the veteran political journalist, Alan Ramsey, had this to say of Latham:

“..The Government fears Latham is the next Keating. Latham has courage and ideas. He understands language and how to use it. He does not back off. He believes, like Whitlam and Keating, both his mentors, in making a stand, and not just on negatives. He believes in Labor’s history. He is a formidable opponent now beginning to stretch himself.

Just watch. There are those who think Latham will be the next Labor prime minister, whenever that might be. I kid you not. For all these reasons, should the opportunity arise to demonise him in the wider community, his opponents will grab it, just as the Government has done this time. Not all those opponents are on the other side of politics, either.”

The exchanges in Parliament today are part of the normal point-scoring we expect in an adversarial parliamentary system. But they should also be seen as part of the battle of ideas and personalities, particularly amongst politicians from both sides who see themselves replacing John Howard as Prime Minister.

Since September 11, and in the aftermath of the Tampa issue, the federal government has made much political mileage out of its defence policies and has offered unstinting support to the American president, George W. Bush. There has been little debate in this country about the extent of Australia’s support for the ‘war on terror’ and the new Bush strategy of pre-emptive action against perceived threats.

Latham’s “arse-licker” comments about Howard, whilst crass, are a welcome divergence from a foreign policy consensus that deserves more honest parliamentary debate.

Is Abbott really offended by Latham’s choice of language? Remember that Abbott was ejected by the Speaker from the House of Representatives chamber on June 21, 2000, along with five other members from both sides. He was the first minister to be suspended since Hugh Roberton in 1961. At one point just prior to his suspension, Abbott was said to have made physical moves towards the Labor benches.

On evening television programs tonight, Abbott continued his pious criticisms of Latham, predictably supported by the tabloid television producers. Who does he think he’s kidding?

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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