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Australia Latham's Law

Latham’s law

10 March 2012

10:00 AM

10 March 2012

10:00 AM

One of the mighty tales of American politics concerns the populist, Depression-era Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. Campaigning for office, Long visited a rural district and promised the construction of a new bridge. Years into his term, however, the bridge had not been built and Long was scheduled to revisit the area. Naturally, the locals homed in on his broken promise. One of them said: ‘Mr Long, you told us you would build that bridge, but you, sir, have broken your word.’ The Governor paused for a moment and replied: ‘You are perfectly right, I lied.’

Bob Carr has displayed similar chutzpah in explaining away his backflip on US-Australian relations. In November he advised the Prime Minister to tell President Obama that Australia did not support America’s ‘mindless anti-China campaign’. In December he asked of Gillard:

When did we decide to favour America’s most mistaken instincts? Do we talk down their paranoia and sabre-rattling when our leaders talk? Why did we allow the announcement about Marines rotating in the Northern Territory to be made in association with the US President’s strange speech [in the Australian parliament] attacking China?

This was good stuff, offering hope for something more substantial than mindless pro-Americanism under a Carresque foreign policy. Unfortunately, in a manoeuvre drawn from the Huey Long playbook, Carr has jettisoned his earlier, well-formed views. Last weekend he told  a media conference:

It’s very unhealthy for you to go back and look at things I said previously. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve said a lot of things and you’ll only get confused with contradictions.

Bob the Blogger has fallen into line with Australia’s foreign policy club and its pro-American instincts. This exposes the myth of Carr’s claim to intellectualism. A true intellectual is able to sustain a coherent argument,
a philosophy of politics, irrespective of changes in circumstance and
public opinion.

Carr’s intelligence is of a niche variety. He is like a bower bird, gathering facts about the exotic events of history, without moulding this information into an active political program. This was evident during his time as NSW Premier. His government focused on the 24-hour news cycle, rather than the difficult issues of microeconomic reform and infrastructure delivery. Carr’s legacy was a broken, scandal-ridden administration — in effect, a bankrupt estate — which was rejected by the people in a landslide election result last year.

Anyone looking to Bob Carr for intellectual guidance and public policy grunt ‘will only get confused with contradictions’. In one of the clearest identikits of Australian politics, he even looks like a bower bird.


In the best bower bird tradition, I offer an intriguing slice of political history. Mark Arbib resigned from parliament citing the responsibilities of young children. His successor in the Senate will have no such difficulty. Indeed, against the trend of Australian political history, two of the Federal Government’s three highest-ranked ministers (Gillard and Carr) are childless (not that there’s anything wrong with that). With the rise of the 24/7 media cycle and increased pressure of political life, more frontbenchers are likely to reflect this lifestyle choice, dedicating themselves to party politics, not children.


We teach our children not to lie. We should also, therefore, teach them not to go into politics. This is the lasting take-out from the Gillard/Rudd leadership struggle. For many months, when asked about Rudd, Gillard said she thought he was doing a fine job as foreign minister. Now we know she regarded him as a treacherous figure, incapable of sound public administration.

Wayne Swan has also enjoyed a belated dose of truth serum. In a scarifying critique on 22 February, the Treasurer described Rudd as ‘somebody who does not hold any Labor values’. By logical extension, this means Swan was willing to serve for three years in government under someone he regarded as un-Labor, a Tory even. The honourable course would have been to resign from the front bench. Swan, however, put social prestige ahead of honour.

This hypocrisy raises another dilemma for the Treasurer. Given his high-level service under a Tory like Rudd, are Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer really that bad?


This is just the beginning of Labor’s revisionism, the recasting of history. The memoirs of Rudd, Gillard and Swan are yet to come. Matters which were not aired during the recent leadership squabble will be dealt with extensively. I look forward to hearing about Swan’s betrayal of Rudd during the June 2010 leadership coup, plus Gillard’s account of the negotiations which led to Heavvie Kevvie being installed as foreign minister.

Bob Carr has a lot to offer in the chronicling of Federal Labor history. During his time in state parliament, he was an enthusiastic diarist, often regaling his staff with readings and character portraits of his colleagues. Following the roaring success of The Latham Diaries, Labor needs another scribe in Caucus. More truth serum, please. 

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