‘Fuck, cunt, poo, bum.’
Mark Latham, Melbourne Writers Festival, 22 August 2015
I’ve long harboured what’s now an unfashionable affection for the politician, diarist and columnist formally known as The Real Mark Latham. His frustration with the way identity politics has subsumed what passes for political discourse in Australia and his rancour that class is a subject almost entirely absent from mainstream commentary are important issues that are largely ignored by the mainstream media. The irony is that he tries to make this point by attacking individuals – that’s to say, engaging in the very identity politics he says he distains. Similarly, he’s long been an advocate for the kind of neoliberalism that has ensured class has become a dirty word while, at the same time, exacerbating the gulf between the richest and poorest members of society. He’s at once a self-styled ‘ousider’ – a kind of cliché Australian everyman – but also a man who not that long ago nearly rose the country’s top office. He is, in other words, a walking, talking, human contradiction. His politics are incoherent and the few hundred words he had in the Financial Review hardly gave him the scope needed to address this. Naively, I thought an hour-long ‘conversation’ with Jonathan Green at the Melbourne Writers Festival might illuminate how such an intelligent man deals with these seemingly irreconcilable inconsistencies. Instead, the audience got Latham Unfiltered.
From the outset he refused to engage Green, who he variously described as a ‘dickhead’, ‘bigot’, ‘deviant’ and ‘an ABC wanker’. His beef with the increasingly frustrated moderator was a comment Green had retweeted (that is, not even a comment he had penned himself) earlier in the week: ‘If you think Mark Latham is a valuable voice in our public debate, well congratulations on your white heteronormative penis.’ But if it hadn’t been that, he would have found something else to be ‘offended’ by. He deliberately railroaded the session so he didn’t have to answer any serious questions about the recent Twitter controversy and, more broadly, the approach he’s taken in his AFR columns.
After refusing to be drawn on whether @RealMarkLatham is in fact his account, things started to get rowdy. With the audience jeering him and Latham refusing to answer any of Green’s questions, Louise Adler, his publisher at Melbourne University Press, asked a question in an effort to steer the conversation back to more sensible topics. Needless to say, this was short-lived, as Latham complained about ‘smearers’ and ‘baggers’ in the media, all the while smearing and bagging an array of people.
He clearly feels he’s been unfairly silenced by what he calls the ‘green left feminist clique’. Having deployed the victim card, he explained that he only attacked the likes of Rosie Batty and Lisa Pryor because he’d been called a misogynist and the inference that he hated all women hurt his family. Then, as if things hadn’t already been weird enough, his voice begun to quiver as he spoke about being a stay-at-home dad and supporting his wife in her career. This, he claimed, was the real Real Mark Latham. It was one of those moments that crowds that turn up at writers festivals generally swoon over: a vulnerable man, opening up about his family, unapologetic and unconcerned about showing genuine emotion. But coming from Latham, in that moment, it looked like a parody and was met with an uncomfortable silence. There was no sympathy for him, and people didn’t want to be lectured on what constitutes a good male citizen by someone who is so clearly not one.
It was a mark of how scattered and inconsistent his ravings had become that he reserved his vilest insults for the feminist writer Clementine Ford, someone whose work he admitted he was only vaguely familiar with and whom he had nothing against personally. What started off as an effort to denigrate Sharri Markson over an article she’d published in the Weekend Australian, soon descended into an increasingly belligerent and far-reaching spray. There was a discernible sense that he was about to say something that could well see him hit with another defamation lawsuit, it was just the small matter of him filling in the details. And yet, he ploughed on.
As a columnist, Latham has come to resemble a poor man’s version of the already much-impoverished Brendan O’Neill. The right to cause offence has been elevated to a guiding principle; it’s not enough to merely point out that there’s much that should be said that isn’t, they deliberately set out to offend people so, when they get the (predictable) response they first sought to illicit, they can claim their point has thus been validated. But, of course, these needless personal attacks undermine what are often complex ideas and arguments. Max Gillies, also in the audience, tried to put this point to Latham who responded by telling him to ‘get your lard-ass off the seat and piss off then’.
That pretty well captures the general level of the intellectual ‘exchange’, but there were moments (very brief, it must be said) where the man that was once seen as a serious thinker shone through. Asked by an audience member what he thought about Tony Abbott, he cited Paul Keating’s description of him as a ‘bad priest’ and said the reason he’s taken such an interest in Indigenous affairs is because ‘he thinks he’s a missionary’. It’s the kind of line Bill Shorten can only dream of thinking up and, even if he did, he would inevitably express it in such a tired manner that it would probably just be chalked up as another uninspiring zinger. But this was the first serious thing said and it came 45 minutes into the session.
With five minutes remaining, Latham made some effort to talk about the benefits of former politicians going into the media, but he got sidetracked even from that and ended up ranting about Sky News. Anyway, by that stage he probably wasn’t the best advocate for the idea that pollies-come-journos have an important contribution to make to the national political discourse.
The final irony came from the armchair psychologists online, warning observers to tread lightly amid speculation Mark Latham likely has a serious mental illness. These are the kind of pronouncements he himself hates; the kind of thinking that he believes impedes progressive ideas and debate, and yet here they were being employed ostensibly to protect him. His arguments, made in all seriousness, are being labelled ‘deranged’, which he undoubtedly thinks reaffirms his worldview about the shallowness of Australian political discourse. But, more than anything else, it’s a reflection of the fact that no-one takes him seriously anymore.
(This was originally published in Overland on 24th August, 2015.)