‘In as much as a quirky, irreverent magazine like The Spectator Australia has an ideology, it would be called conservative. In contributing to these pages, I’m here for the quirkiness, not the political template.’ With these fine words, Mark Latham joined this magazine in early 2011, soon to become one of our most popular columnists. What made Mark’s writing so compelling were the insights he shared about politics in general, and the Labor party in particular, combined with his dry, humorous (some would say cruel) observations about human foibles. That Mark has a tendency to play the man as much as the ball came as no surprise to anyone who observed his parliamentary career.
Hence ‘Gerard Henderson is crackers’, Rebecca Weisser is a ‘cave-dweller’, Kevin Rudd wears a toupee, Paul Howes is an ugly Trot whose looks benefitted enormously from his transition to a faceless man, and so on. All good fun, for everyone other than the latest, hapless victim for whom Mark had developed – in the words of Julie Bishop – ‘an unhealthy obsession’. Whether Mr Latham was tailoring his column for his audience, writing for them what he presumed they wished to hear rather than what he himself believed, only he can say. But before long the almost-former-Labor Prime Minister was singing the praises of Richard Nixon, calling for the privatisation of the ABC, rubbishing the Greens and asserting that because Julia Gillard is childless she has no place as the nation’s comforter-in-chief after natural disasters.
But then something happened. Quite what is anyone’s guess, so here’s ours: over drinks with his right-wing union buddies, somebody slipped Mark a mickey finn, bundled him into the back of a plumber’s van, whisked him to Bankstown airport, and smuggled him out of the country in one of Bob Carr’s diplomatic bags to a remote army camp in North Korea where he underwent an intensive re-education program under the careful ministrations of a highly trained team of small, Asian, female doctors under the watchful eye of John McTernan. What emerged, in the spring of last year, is a man who has traded in his trademark eccentricity for a more predictable, undiscriminating Labor loyalist line. Mark apparently now hates Tories (and Tony Abbott) with an Albo-esque passion, hates the media like Bob Brown and lavishes upon Julia Gillard an unhesitating fealty that would make Craig Emerson blush.
Although we, and our readers, were extremely disappointed when Mr Latham decided before Christmas to resign from these pages, it is unlikely we or they would have found his current musings up to their original high standard. His bizarre attack in the AFR on Margie Abbott (for, er, behaving like a politician’s wife in exactly the same manner his own wife did) was certainly neither insightful nor quirky. And his live performances on Sky, where he recently went into a long, pointless tirade against Dennis Shanahan, certainly lack the humour his readers came to expect.
Come back Mark. We all miss you.
In praise of Chris Bowen
We take regular whacks at Labor politicians for their blunders. So let us now applaud that rare political figure, a senior minister who has tried to do some good. We are referring to Chris Bowen, the immigration-turned-tertiary-education minister.
In 2010, Mr Bowen was given the job of mopping up the mess left by his predecessor, Chris Evans, who resigned last weekend. This is the bloke, remember, who declared it was the ‘proudest moment’ of his political career to dismantle Philip Ruddock’s Pacific Solution, another broken election promise that led to the revival of the people-smuggling racket, hundreds of deaths at sea and a flood of illegal immigrants. Facing all sorts of opposition — activist judges, ‘human rights’ activists, the Labor Left, the Greens, even at times a petty Coalition — Mr Bowen sought to toughen up our border protection laws with the resumption of offshore processing. Notwithstanding our differences with Mr Bowen — such as over his revival of multiculturalism, which in practice has meant a dangerous tolerance for illiberal sentiments — he deserves praise for forcing his colleagues to accept the fundamental axiom of post-war migrant policy: that tough border protection helps boost public confidence in large-scale, non-discriminatory immigration.
There is an overwhelming sense of gloom about the ALP. But if the Member for McMahon in western Sydney survives an Abbott wipe-out in September, Labor can take solace in the fact that the 40-year-old Mr Bowen — a political grown-up who takes ideas and history seriously — will represent the next generation of leaders.