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John Faulkner Launches “Loner”, New Book On Mark Latham

This is the text of a speech by Senator John Faulkner at the launch of Bernard Lagan’s book, “Loner”.

LonerThe book deals with Mark Latham’s leadership of the ALP, the 2004 federal election campaign and Latham’s departure from the leadership in January this year.

Faulkner has been a senator since 1989. He was a minister in the Keating government and a shadow minister until he stood down after last year’s election.

Faulkner argues that the ALP must learn the lessons of the 2004 election defeat but “it would be a very great shame if the only lesson Labor learned was to always play it safe”.

Faulkner says Lagan’s book “shows that Mark’s fatal flaw was not recklessness, not the risks that he took – in a way, it was the risks he refused to take.”

Of Latham, Faulkner says: “He was a loner, as the title of the book suggests. He would not take the chance of trusting those around him, and that hurt him, and Labor, badly. Mark played his cards close to his chest. He wouldn’t take even those staff and colleagues who should have been close to him into his confidence. To do so was a risk worth taking, and it should have been taken.”

Faulkner also offered a warning about the state of the NSW ALP. He said: “In NSW, a combative organisational culture has at times turned toxic. When maintaining factional power is put ahead of civility, decency, honesty, humanity or even legality, then bullying and thuggery become lazy substitutes for debate. Behaviour unacceptable outside NSW Labor is all too often rewarded within it.”

Text of Senator John Faulkner’s speech at the launch of Bernard Lagan’s book, “Loner”.


When Bernie Lagan asked me to launch this book, I admit I had some misgivings. I disagree with some of the analysis, and with some of the opinions in this book – including those of its subject! There is always the risk that someone, motivated by stupidity or by spite, will think launching a book equals endorsing its contents. But, on reflection, I thought this was a risk well worth taking.

Loner covers a very recent and very volatile episode in Labor?s history. The dust has not settled. The wounds are raw. Some would say that nowhere near enough time has passed for a reasoned (or reasonable) discussion of Mark Latham’s leadership.

So Bernie has taken a risk himself, engaging so closely and so soon with this highly-coloured and highly dramatic story. Will it ultimately suffer in comparison with more distant and detached works yet to come?

Although only time will tell, I think Bernie’s risk was also well worth taking. And his book, sharply evocative of both the all-too-rare highlights and the all-too-frequent pain of Labor’s last few years, is well worth adding to any collection of Labor history.

Worth adding, of course, because of the quality of Bernie’s work. But also because Bernie’s unflinching gaze, his clear, his critical and compassionate study of our Party in its manifold flaws and occasional glories, is itself an example of Labor’s greatest strength.

We value our history without caveat. The light on the hill, and the shadows beneath, are both part of Labor’s past. And we struggle to accept and learn from both.

We hold our history close in the Labor Party, we breathe new life into old feuds. We use our history as a guide and a justification. It is our weapon of choice in battles against foes without and within the party. It’s our weapon of choice, but it’s a two-edged sword. Labor’s close engagement with our history risks uncomfortable truths and awkward revelations.

Perhaps this is why books about Labor’s history sell better than those about the conservatives. Of course, it may simply be because tragedies sell better than farce. But I think that Labor’s complex and passionate faith in our past makes books about that past more interesting than the anodyne hagiography that comprises most Tory history. Labor is willing to face unpalatable truths because we know we must understand what we have been, to decide what we will become.

In our century of Australian democracy, Labor has struggled to represent what is best in our nation. We do not pretend to have been always and only successful. Unlike our conservative opponents, we admit it. Australia’s shadows are Labor’s shadows too.

Labor’s honesty in grappling with our demons means that Labor’s story is part of the nation?s story in a way that the conservatives’ can never be. The way Mark Latham’s leadership was received illustrates this very point. After all, can you imagine a book about John Howard, Brendan Nelson, or Peter Costello titled, as one biography of Mark was, “Australian Son”?

There is the risk that our frankness about ourselves will become the political capital of our opponents. But frankness is a risk we have found worth taking.

Well, there is certainly plenty of frankness in today’s new addition to Labor’s story.

I know that to follow custom I should stand up here and say how much I enjoyed reading this book.

I’m sorry, Bernie. I have to honestly say that I did not enjoy reading this book one little bit.

It’s not that the book is bad. The opposite! In fact, it was because the book so sharply describes some of Federal Labor’s most difficult days that I found it such a profoundly depressing read. Why, I wondered, couldn’t we have had a chronicler who dulled the agony with numbing detail and tedious prose?

The bulk of Loner covers a period in which Labor has been in Federal Opposition – nine long years and four consecutive election losses.

It’s not unusual for Labor to lose elections. It’s not unusual for Labor to be in opposition. We have been in opposition federally for 72 of the 104 years since Federation, and we have lost 29 of the 41 Federal elections ever held.

So, Labor has had plenty of practice at losing. That doesn’t make us ‘good losers’. Loner shows that many Labor Party members and indeed Parliamentarians can be very bad losers indeed.

This is one of many frank assessments, franker than comfort would dictate, in this book. But Bernie’s unsparing analysis is not marred by cheap shots. His judicious criticism is founded on his sources, not on reflex or hindsight. Unlike so many in the commentariat, Bernie does not suffer from the misconception that his personal opinions are objective analysis.

It may never be possible to be absolutely sure of the truth of any event, particularly one that’s highly charged politically, or personally. Bernie doesn’t pretend to certainty. He has assembled a broad range of sources, and allowed these often divergent views to compete for the reader’s belief. I have no doubt that many of the individuals interviewed on and off the record for this book did their best to sell a particular spin. The finished product proves Bernie bought little of it.

It is worth noting, that one group of possible sources, and one group of perspectives, is not represented in Loner. That is, those who felt that loyalty to Party or to colleagues precluded co-operating with Bernie’s public autopsy.

However, Bernie did have the advantage of access to selected extracts from the diaries of Bob Carr. The extracts were selected for Bernie by Bob himself. They reflect their author: accurate, but circumspect and guarded.

Diaries are like that: they reflect the opinions, the blind spots and biases of those who keep them. Historians using diaries as sources should be aware that they are no more accurate or truthful than the person making the entry. Even Henri Petain, hardly a paradigm of virtue himself, said that to write a memoir ‘is to speak ill of everybody except oneself’.

Or to quote Bridget Jones, ‘Everyone knows diaries are just full of crap.’

Some argue that when it comes to politicians, diaries should not be kept or at least they should be burned unread. I don’t agree with that. But for people in public life, keeping and then deciding to publish a diary raises extra questions. Someone privy to sensitive political information – or security briefings – faces special challenges of confidentiality.

A leader of a Parliamentary Party such as a Premier is subject to special demands and expectations of discretion. Leading a democratic political party, he or she must balance those demands of confidentiality against the requirements of democracy. When is it appropriate for matters discussed in private between individuals to become public?

Secrecy and confidentiality are not the same thing. Neither, of course, are transparency and indiscretion.

When we judge whether the line between transparency and indiscretion has been crossed, we are more lenient to the diarist than to the garrulous interviewee, careless correspondent or the anonymous leaker. The grand literary tradition of journals lends an air (often spurious) of intellectual legitimacy to what is sometimes no more than gossip.

The materiality of a diary, the permanence of the writing on the page, gives the impression of reliability and objectivity to what is only one person’s opinion and interpretation of an event. For example, both John Button’s memoirs and Neil Blewett’s diaries contain an account of a conversation between those two immediately after Bill Hayden resigned. Blewett records himself as saying: ‘What’s been done was perhaps necessary but did you have to be a part of it?’ Button records Blewett saying: ‘Well, I must say I admire your courage …’

Both these accounts capture emotional truths in their factual inaccuracies. The extracts from Bob Carr’s diaries that Bernie uses in Loner are not precise in every detail, but do remind the reader of the context of the leadership ballot that elected Mark Latham by two votes. Reading some of the commentary after the defeat last October, I could only conclude that our parlous state just twelve months earlier had been completely forgotten.

At that time, Mark benefited from a mood in Caucus for a bold decision in desperate circumstances. He was never seen to be a sure thing, but many felt he was a better bet than sticking with the status quo. In dire situations, some people become very cautious. However, extreme peril encourages others to an equally extreme gamble. And in December 2003, both tendencies were represented in Caucus in almost exactly equal proportions.

The very audacity of voting for a young, brash and untried Leader could not but be appealing to many members of a Party formed for the drastic purpose of ‘making and unmaking social conditions’. Labor is the Party of change – and Mark certainly was a change.

Voting for Mark was a risk – but a risk the majority of the Caucus – including me – believed worth taking. He had real and important strengths:

  • He had confidence;
  • A remarkable capacity to get across a brief;
  • He had a vision for where he wanted to take Labor. I’ll admit that not everybody agreed with his choice of destination, but there was unquestionably a sense of forward movement about a Party that had been stagnant for a long time.
  • Mark was a very effective communicator who appeared natural and unaffected on TV.

He had real and important strengths, but as Loner recounts, Mark had real and important flaws. Perhaps he underestimated the Liberal Party attacks that would come his way, during the campaign and the long sustained underhanded dirty war throughout his time as leader. Certainly, his colleagues underestimated his vulnerability and his propensity to over-reaction.

His personal style exacerbated these problems.

Mark’s whole political life was characterised by his willingness to fight and his reluctance to retreat. He copped a lot of flak for his intemperate language and aggressive behaviour. It was seen as so integral to his persona that the restraint he showed as Leader was barely acknowledged.

Like many of us, Mark grew up in the Party hearing stories of the great struggles of Labor’s past. We idolise the men and women who stood resolute in defence of our principles and values – against great odds, ruthless opponents, even personal danger. But we should not mistake bravado for bravery, or belligerence for courage.

In NSW, a combative organisational culture has at times turned toxic. When maintaining factional power is put ahead of civility, decency, honesty, humanity or even legality, then bullying and thuggery become lazy substitutes for debate. Behaviour unacceptable outside NSW Labor is all too often rewarded within it.

A hard school can teach necessary lessons. But you can be sure that shrinking violets do not survive, let alone thrive, in the NSW Labor Party, home of Lang, Wran, Keating – and Graham Richardson.

As an active member of the NSW Labor tribe, I know how hard it can be to draw a clear distinction between the ritualised conflict of Party forums and the real world. Some graduates of this same unforgiving school have given up trying. And no young person immersed in this culture can escape unaffected.

Rather than simply blame Mark for being what his time and place demanded he be, we should draw a lesson from the negative reaction in the community to some of Mark’s language and some of his actions.

Those of us on the inside of the gladiatorial NSW culture underestimate the difference between our own experience and expectations and those of the community.

That cost us. And it cost Mark.

Both Mark Latham and the Party he led were hurt by our own culture. And both the Party and the Leader were hurt by Labor’s desire for a messiah to save us – to save us from ourselves as much as from outside forces. This is a burden that proved too great for Mark, as it would perhaps have proved too great for anyone.

Mark was a bold politician, passionate about the future Australia he imagined. Part of his tragedy is that he became leader of the Labor Party at a time when his boldness and his passion were not enough.

I suspect that the wisdom of Solomon, the cunning of the serpent and the patience of a saint would not have been enough!

Perhaps that is why so few of Labor’s parliamentarians over recent years have put up their hands in leadership ballots. It’s never an easy job, and in 2003 it looked harder than ever. Certainly, Bob Carr looked at the difficulties Federal Labor was in and decided that the risks of leadership were too much of a challenge.

I give credit to Mark Latham and Kim Beazley. They put up their hands. They decided the risk was worth taking.

After Mark won that ballot he did present a Labor program. He did argue for his interpretation of Labor principles and he did restore enthusiasm to many Labor supporters and Party members. And for many, even the shocking loss did not diminish that enthusiasm.

During the campaign, as this book shows, Mark made some high and wide calls, and some of our policies were politically risky. Policies with losers as well as winners are always dangerous electorally. But in politics, every decision, every action, carries some electoral risk. The task is to balance the risk against the reward.

Some of the very policies that gave Labor supporters the greatest sense of pride were the least palatable to the community. When you preach to the choir, you get a great reception: but your back is to the congregation.

2004 was always going to be a hard campaign for Labor. Sensitivity to interest rates and anxiety about national and personal security meant that a ‘better the devil you know’ message had a powerful resonance with voters. Many in the electorate were reluctant to take a risk on an untried leader.

It would be easy for the ALP to lay the blame for our 2004 defeat at the door of Mark Latham alone. Perhaps that is why so many are doing it. But our loss in 2004 goes deeper than just failings on the part of Labor’s Leader, and our Party’s problems go deeper than our loss in 2004.

No one election defeat, no single leader, no one campaign or campaign team, no single machine, is responsible for Labor’s malaise. Searching for individual culprits distracts us from grappling with the structural problems that we face – and Labor can no longer afford the luxury of distractions.

We must live up to Labor’s best traditions and accept our collective responsibility.

After all, Mark campaigned well. He handled the Jakarta bombing with sensitivity and maturity. He won the debate hands down. I remember the question that Denis Atkins asked at the Press Club luncheon on the Wednesday before the election: ‘I was just wondering, Mr Latham, whether you believe that there is any honour in winning the campaign but losing the election?’ Despite the wide-spread revisionism since the election, I know that many gallery journalists held that exact same view during the campaign. They told me so. Relax, I won’t name you. Those conversations will remain private.

After polling day, the pack changed direction. Suddenly, the campaign was evidence of Mark’s unreliability, his flakiness, his recklessness.

It would be a mistake for the ALP to fall for the revisionism, and I think Bernie’s book provides a useful corrective. It shows that Mark’s fatal flaw was not recklessness, not the risks that he took – in a way, it was the risks he refused to take.

He was a loner, as the title of the book suggests. He would not take the chance of trusting those around him, and that hurt him, and Labor, badly. Mark played his cards close to his chest. He wouldn’t take even those staff and colleagues who should have been close to him into his confidence. To do so was a risk worth taking, and it should have been taken.

I think that Mark’s time as Leader and especially the last months of his Parliamentary career were marred by that same lack of consultation and trust. The Tsunami response, the handling of his health problems and his sour resignation speech were all avoidable errors. I am sure that if he had been willing to let those around him help him, if he had been willing to seek aid and take advice, those errors would have been avoided.

And one error I hope Mark will not make now is to walk away from the enormous part of his life that the Labor Party has been – and burn all his bridges behind him. Labor is very generous to our former leaders – when they allow us to be.

I would not want Mark’s legacy to be seen only in the light of the 2004 defeat and its aftermath. Such a bitter legacy of disappointment and betrayal would taint and cloud Mark’s real and considerable contribution.

I hope that people will remember more of Mark’s story than the final chapter. How apt that in Bernie’s book that final chapter is: ‘Chapter 13: The Tsunami and the Mad End’. It is both a memorable chapter in Bernie’s book and a memorable chapter in Australian politics. There has been no meltdown like it.

The collapse of Mark’s health may or may not have happened without the pressure of the election and its aftermath. With perfect hindsight, that collapse and Mark’s subsequent loss of perspective and erratic behaviour earlier this year are now seen as the final vindication of all the arguments about Mark’s fitness to lead.

I hope that the rest of Bernie’s book will remind us all of a more rounded picture of Mark’s career: not only the disappointment, but also the excitement. Not just the acrimony, but also the inspiration.

Not just the risk, but the reasons we were willing to take the risk.

No doubt historians will fuel decades of debate with the question of whether the risk was, in the end, worth taking. I am, I think, too close to events to judge. But I will say that politics is about perceiving chances, seizing opportunities, and yes – taking the occasional risk.

There are lessons in Labor’s last election defeat. There are lessons in this book. I’ve alluded to a few of them.

If would be a very great shame if the only lesson Labor learned was to always play it safe.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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