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Mark Latham’s First Press Conference As Leader Of The ALP

This is the transcript of Mark Latham’s first press conference following his election as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, replacing Simon Crean.

  • Listen to Latham’s press conference (15m)
  • Listen to Latham’s First Question Time in the House of Representatives (62m)

Transcript of Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s first press conference.

Mark Latham, Leader of the OppositionLATHAM: Thank you ladies and gentlemen for coming along. Today the leadership of the Labor Party has moved to a new generation. A generation that has grown up aspiring to a good education in life and good health care for our children. These are the things that must be available to all Australians. These are the things I have believed in all my life, all my life.

I’ve been greatly honoured by my Caucus colleagues today. I see this as a line in the sand for the Australian Labor Party – a chance to move forward together, together for the benefit of the Australian people. A united Labor Party always committed to the best interests of the Australian people. A party committed to winning government when that election is held sometime next year.

Now some people today of course will be asking, `who is Mark Latham and what does he stand for?’ Well I stand for the things that I’ve been doing all my life – working hard trying to climb that ladder of opportunity, working hard, studying hard. I believe in an upwardly mobile society where people can climb the rungs of opportunity, climbing the ladder of opportunity to a better life for themselves and their family. I believe in hard work. I believe in reward for effort. I believe in a Government that is there to help the people who are doing the right thing – the people who are getting stuck in, doing things the fair dinkum Australian way.

And that’s always been the case for me, always the case of working hard and getting stuck in. That was me from public housing seeing that my mum was in a home of her own, I worked hard through school and got through to university, then I moved on to a good job and worked hard. I then, when I had the honour to serve in my local community in local government and then for the last ten years working hard in the Australian parliament.

You’ve got to get stuck in and I believe passionately in climbing the rungs of opportunity. And I want that for all Australians. I believe in upward mobility. I believe in climbing that ladder. And the problem in Australia that we’ve got at the moment is the Howard Government has taken out too many of the rungs. It has taken out too many rungs. I want to put them back in. The rungs of opportunity that comes from good quality health care in our society, the opportunity that comes from a decent, affordable education, the basic services that all our community rely on. These are the things we’ve got to restore. We’ve got to put those rungs back into the ladder of opportunity in this country.

We also need to win the war against terror internationally. That’s a firm commitment of mine. We’ve also got to win the domestic war against inequality. I want a society based on opportunity for all, where all Australians can advance themselves through hard work and having a go.

Today the 2nd of December is a very special day in my constituency of Werriwa. It’s the 31st anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government. But it’s also something else, it’s the 31st anniversary of the first time the Australian people voted for a universal public health system. I reconfirm my commitment today to that principle – universal public healthcare for all Australians. Labor built and established Medibank and then Medicare and only Labor will restore and protect our health system in the future. It’s only Labor that firmly believes in the principle of Medicare.

So my aim, my aim as the new Labor leader, the Leader of the Opposition, my aim today, my aim in Government will be to put the rungs of health care, education, early childhood development, decent services back into that ladder of opportunity.

That’s who I am and that’s what I stand for. It’s as simple as that. That’s who I am and they are things that I’ve always believed in and the things that I stand for today and in the future.

My other priority is to be positive. I’m not by nature a negative person. I like being positive. I like advancing the public debate. I’m in politics on the progressive side. I believe in reasoned and rational debate, that people can adjust and progress our society with a collective sense of who we are and what we need to do together. So I pledge my opposition party to be as positive as possible. If the Howard Government does something good for this country I’ll be supporting it. I’m not here as opposition for opposition’s sake. I’m here to do the right thing by Australia’s national interest always. Always.

I have some special thanks today. I want to thank my predecessor Simon Crean for his service to our great party. I said to the Caucus room earlier and I repeat it here that if all the MPs in this place had half the courage of Simon Crean all of our problems as a nation would be over. He is a man of immense quality and courage and I’m deeply honoured that he’s offered to serve and continue to serve on my front bench.

I also thank Kim Beazley and his wife, Suzie, for the way in which the leadership campaign was run. The decent and dignified way in which Kim Beazley conducted the campaign. We needed a healing process within the Australian Labor Party and that is what we’ve got.

I want to thank my colleagues and supporters. The people in the Caucus – all of them – not just those who voted for me but all of them. I want to thank them for their friendship, camaraderie, the great privilege and honour they’ve given me today. And I thank the supporters I’ve had in the past through my time in local government, through my time growing up in a public housing estate in western Sydney.

I remember that first night I joined the Labor Party. It was January 1979, one of those beautiful balmy Sydney nights – and you sort of hope they last forever. Well that was the night I joined the Australian Labor Party. And I remember it well because I had to walk to the branch meeting, you see. You didn’t have public or a private bus in Green Valley after seven o’clock on a Monday night. We didn’t own a car so I walked up to thirty or forty minutes. And, I didn’t really know what I was getting into but I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be part of it because Labor really is the party of belief and conviction, a better society for all Australians.

I love this country, I love Australian Labor and the things we can do for our nation.

I most particularly want to thank my family. It’s good to see Isaac Gough having a clap – you would on the 2nd of December wouldn’t you? I want to thank Janine, my wife, for her love and support. I’ve been happy in the home, happy in our relationship. It gives me the strength to do this job properly. My two boys, Oliver and Isaac – fatherhood for me has been the great experience that you can have to really know the love of being a parent. And if my little boys look back on this, they don’t sort of understand it fully today – Ollie is getting into a bit of yoga here – but, if they look back and think, well, that’s my dad and we’re proud of him, well, that’ll do me, that’ll do me for the way in which I conduct this job.

I want to thank my mum who has always been there for me, always been there. She knows what it is like where you climb that ladder and you have a go and you work hard and you advance. I said to her earlier today, `Mum, this feels like a big thing’. It is a big thing. We’ve got to be honest about that. But it’s no different to the other challenges we’ve had where we’ve had a go and we’ve moved ahead. And even if it hadn’t have come off today we always give it our best shot.

I love my family, I want to thank my mum, my three sisters for all their support and encouragement now and in the future.

Finally, I just want to say this: I’m a proud Australian and all I want in life is for an Australian Government that is as good as the Australian people themselves. And I make this one pledge to the Australian people. I’ll always do my best, always my best for them, and always my very best for our great country.

Many thanks and I’m happy to field a few questions.

JOURNALIST: Are you shocked by the result, or did you expect to win?

LATHAM: Well, Lincoln, it was tight, it was tight. That is not unusual in the history of the Australian Labor Party. You’ll see on the wall over there is a guy called John Curtin, and in 1935 he won by one vote. We were a small Caucus in those days. He had 11 votes; Frank Forde had 10.

There was some criticism of Curtin at the time. Was he the man for the job? Was he going to step up? I’m not claiming the comparison, but I claim the inspiration. There was John Curtin, by one vote in 1935, and he put behind us the anguish of our Great Depression Government, the Scullin years and some of the bitterness of that period, and he stepped forward.

My assessment is that I’ve won by two today – I’m one up on John Curtin. And if I can do half the job that he did as a Labor leader and half the job that he did for our country as a magnificent Prime Minister, well, I’ll rest happy indeed.

JOURNALIST: Might there be retributions, and what happens to the frontbenchers who were backing Beazley [inaudible]?

LATHAM: Well, Catherine, I want the best Labor team. I want the best Labor team for the best interests of the Australian people. There will be no retribution; I want all good Labor people with good in their heart to come forward and serve and make sure we’ve got the best team in every portfolio. Front bench, back bench, a united Labor team moving forward for the benefit of the Australian people.

JOURNALIST: Who will be Shadow Treasurer now?

LATHAM: Michelle, I haven’t got to the detail of that. I’ll be making an announcement about the acting Shadow Treasurer at 2 o’clock as we go into Question Time.

I’ve had a few lists on my desk in recent times, but they’re voting lists rather than Shadow Ministry lists, so one list at a time and I’ll get around to that in due course.

JOURNALIST: ….Simon Crean… [inaudible].

LATHAM: I’m honoured that he’s asked to serve, that he wants to serve the party in an ongoing basis. It’s a measure of the man that this is his quality, this is his commitment. He is a truly resilient person with a lot of experience, a lot of goodwill and good ideas for the Australian people.

We’re building on Simon’s policy legacy-the magnificent campaign to save bulk billing and Medicare, the release of our post-secondary education policy, the environment policy, some of the things we’ve been saying in superannuation.

So I think it’s important to have Simon there, and obviously I’ll be having a discussion with him to sort out the detail. But we’re building on his policy legacy and moving forward and I’m very, very thankful that Simon will be there by my side.

JOURNALIST: Are you expecting any resignations? At the moment there are no vacancies on the front bench. Are you expecting any?

LATHAM: I hope there aren’t any resignations. I don’t want any resignations. I want people who have goodwill in their heart and are desperately wanting a Labor Government. We can’t afford the Howard Government.

From our perspective, if you believe in progressive politics, a better Australian society, a fairer society, we’ve all got to work together to defeat the Howard Government. And I hope and trust that that will be the attitude of my colleagues.

Both Kim Beazley and I spoke about a reconciliation, a healing process during the past four or five days. I meant every word of it, I meant every word of it.

JOURNALIST: Do you regret anything you’ve said or done in the past? I’m thinking particularly of a Sydney taxi driver, that the Government hasn’t tired of reminding you of.

LATHAM: Well, it’s a big city, Sydney, and every now and then there is a bit of strife as you get home. But you know, in all frankness, my property was stolen; I recovered it. That is the standard by which I’ve lived my life, and I don’t think that’s a problem at all. But in terms of whether I’ve done anything wrong – I mean, the one perfect guy, they strung him up, didn’t they?

So I can’t claim to be any better than that, and in this job inevitably in public life people make mistakes. None of us is perfect. I’m sure John Howard would say that about himself. So that is just the reality of a full life. I love my public life. I love living it to the full. I’m not a white-bread politician. I’m not going to become in that groove. I’ll do things according to my own style and public policy priorities, and do the best I can.

JOURNALIST: Is there anything about your style that you might change?

LATHAM: Well, Louise, sometimes people talk about my language – and it’s true that I love the Australian language so much so that I use it in my public life – but I’ve got to recognise now that in this role I want 100% of the Australian community to relate to me. I want an inclusive approach, and I’ve got a new responsibility.

I’m the same Mark Latham, but I’m in a new role. In that regard, I’ve got to get the balance right, an inclusive approach. I love the larrikin Australian style, but no more crudity. No more crudity – I’ll have to leave that to Reggie Reagan and the Footy Show, I think.

And I’ll be doing the best I can in this job to make sure all Australians can relate to me and we have a leader that the Australian people can look up to and, most particularly, not just as an individual but for the public policies we want to advance for the good of the country.

JOURNALIST: Do you regret calling the President ‘flaky, dangerous and incompetent’ now that you are going to be responsible for trying to get some reconciliation with his Government as leader of the Labor Party.

LATHAM: Matt, I believe in the American Alliance, and I’ve always believed in the United States. All my life I’ve loved their history, I’ve loved their people, I’ve loved their democracy. And the essence of their democracy, as with ours, is that we have the freedom to disagree with policy and freedom to criticise policy and at times criticise policy-makers.

You’ll never have a democracy where there’s no criticism of a policy-maker and, in the context of that debate, that’s water under the bridge. But it relates to the earlier point. Obviously I’ve got to be mindful of these things and want to ensure that the Australian Labor Party has the right structure in a policy sense. We’ve got the good international focus and I’m a supporter of the Americans.

I don’t want to go back into this. One of the problems of the Howard Government is they’re always talking about the past. I’m here for the future. I’m here for the future, because the Australian people live their life in the future. None of us live our life through a history book.

JOURNALIST: Do you still believe today that President Bush is dangerous, flaky and incompetent?

LATHAM: I said that in the context of the debate, and I think it’s best left there in the context of that debate we had in the Parliament. I’m not here to make character references on President Bush. It was nice to meet him. I’ve been in the Parliament ten years and John Howard brought his friend around to say hello, and I shook his hand – as you would in this country.

Obviously I’ll be talking more about foreign policy and those relationships in the future. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of in my own beliefs. I support that Alliance. We would obviously want a very, very good relationship with the United States, as with other countries around the world. I believe in power-sharing and international cooperation. And those things are a basic Labor value.

So I want to thank you for your time here today, and I’ve got a bit of preparation for a thing called Question Time. So I appreciate your attendance, and look forward to seeing you many times in the future.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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