Towards a politics of hope

In the aftermath of yet another federal Liberal party election victory, Craig McGregor’s Australian Son: Inside Mark Latham and Brian Costar and Jennifer Curtin’s Rebels with a Cause: Independents in Australian Politics offer two very different solutions to the problem vexing an increasingly disillusioned Australia; how to change the state (and status quo) of Australian federal politics.

The solution offered by Craig McGregor (with assistance from brother Adrian) is found in the man he has been researching for seven years since McGregor first recognised him as the future leader of the Labor party. Using material gleaned from interviews with Mark Latham, his friends and family members, as well as observations made while accompanying Latham on numerous campaigns, McGregor promises an ‘inside’ perspective of Australia’s alternative prime minister. While the book provides short, sharp and often insightful observations of the ‘man of dualities’, at 197 pages, it is tempting to suggest that either there is not much ‘inside’ our future leader, or, as other Latham biographers have suggested, that the attempt to quarry Latham’s ‘inner world’ is like extracting ‘blood from a stone’.

McGregor begins his biography with a visit to Latham’s suburban childhood. Through a series of semi-nostalgic, almost sepia toned, snapshots—which include Latham on the football field, Latham in the classroom and Latham doing his homework—we see an ambitious, bright, but rather lonely child who was exalted as the great hope of a family struggling against the odds. McGregor cites the death of Latham’s father and the discovery of his father’s secret first marriage and his drinking and gambling habits, as integral to both Latham’s close relationship with Gough Whitlam and his interest in the so-called ‘crisis in masculinity’.

As McGregor charts Latham’s meteoric political ascent, we can track Latham’s transformation from bright, right bovver boy to unifying party and family man and see how this has also involved the negotiation of many contradictions. McGregor suggests these include Latham being economically right, but emotionally left, a bit of a bully boy, but also an intellectual, a bloke’s bloke, with a soft underbelly. McGregor is at his weakest when he slips into adulatory appreciation of the man he has dubbed ‘The Great Suburbanite’, indulging in what Latham’s first wife has described as Latham’s ‘Messiah complex’. At his best, however, McGregor offers some convincing insights into the shifting sands of Australian society as well as critical sensitivity to Latham’s thinking. Indeed, having reviewed Latham’s writing McGregor argues that, as a politician, Latham’s strength lies, not so much in his policies, but, in his ability to be responsive to new ideas.

Ironically, Latham’s intellectual strength may be the source of his 2004 election defeat. While Latham’s perceived reluctance to reveal policy attracted criticism from the media and general public, when his policies did emerge they were criticised as being ‘soft’ or offering no solutions at all. Although McGregor’s Latham possesses a persuasive command of rhetoric, ‘election Latham’ did not. In contrast to McGregor’s Latham who describes Australia’s need for a more clearly articulated ‘politics of hope’, Latham’s 2004 election campaign offered little more than the reassurance that things would stay the same. In so doing, Latham not only failed ‘to appeal to the future’; he also neglected to create a point of difference from ‘The Program of Blandification’ which has dominated federal politics during the Howard years.

So if Mark Latham is not the current solution to Australia’s status quo, who or what is? In Rebels with a Cause: Independents in Australian Politics, Brian Costar and Jennifer Curtin suggest that the articulation of a politics of hope comes from the real ‘outsiders’ of Australia’s political system: the independents. With over 55 elected since the 1980s, Australia now has more independent politicians than any comparable Western democracy in the world. Of these, over 30 have represented rural and regional constituents, and, at the time of publishing in early 2004 there were still 25 independents in Australian politics. So, what do these statistics and the relatively recent phenomena of the independent say about Australia’s political landscape? And how might this offer us a point of difference and even a voice of reason within a system, which some believe is now so top heavy with party politics and career politicians that it is in danger of grinding to a halt?

For Costar and Curtin, the rise of the independent can be traced to the fact that our main political parties are no longer meeting the needs of our regional and rural constituents. Add to this, the fact that Australia’s major parties are experiencing a long-term decline in popularity, while inner party discipline is at an all time high, and we have a situation where the independent is often the only candidate able to articulate dissent and initiate debate. Compulsory voting has also worked in favour of the independent who is seen to offer the disenfranchised voter a local and immediate alternative to the remote power players of Canberra.

Using research gleaned from 85 nationwide qualitative interviews, Rebels with a Cause explores the history and future, power and position of the role of the independent in Australian politics. Through the use of current and historical case studies and an examination of the relationship between the independents and the Senate, Costar and Curtin discuss the ways that independents have established Charters for Good Governance agreements, fought or failed to represent the needs of their constituencies, while simultaneously struggling to ‘keep the bastards honest’.

To Costar and Curtin, the real heroes of Australian politics are independents like Peter Andren, the current Member for Calare, who maintains a stance against the government’s treatment of asylum seekers which is unpopular with electorate; Doris Blackburn, who was elected as an independent in 1946 and was the first, and to date, only independent female elected to Parliament, and Tom ‘Tory’ Aiken from Townsville, who kept his seat for 33 years, due to some highly amusing antics. These are people who bucked the system on their own terms and at their own cost with a zeal that was often visionary and radical.

Fast paced, well written and informative, Rebels with a Cause offers its own ‘politics of hope’ by reminding us that the Australian political landscape has always been punctuated with colourful and passionate, defiant and determined characters, who refuse to be bullied by the big guns of the party system. This book suggests, that while the current landscape is arid and barren, it may well be that from such deserts our next prophets come.  

Australian Son: Inside Mark Latham, Craig McGregor.
Pluto Press, 2004. isbn 1 864 03288 X, rrp $24.95

Rebels with a Cause: Independents in Australian Politics, Brian Costar and Jennifer Curtin.
UNSW Press, 2004. isbn 0 868 40695 3, rrp $16.95

Kiera Lindsey is a project officer for the Development of Australian Studies in Indonesia at the University of Melbourne.



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