July 07, 2004 | Graham

The balance of hatred

Mark Latham’s performance on Monday was what I would call a “reverse smear” – it did to his opponents what he is claiming they are doing to him, and did it by playing the victim card. It is a legitimate tactic, but will it work?
In this election campaign, one of the most powerful forces that Latham has on his side at the moment is the balance of hatred. While Howard supporters respect Howard, they will not die in a ditch for him. Latham supporters are drawn not so much to Latham, but to the possibility of deposing Howard, and they hate Howard passionately. As political contests are most often won by the least disliked, this is a problem for Howard.
Latham’s press conference appeals firstly and most directly to the Howard haters. They are ready to believe the worst of “Honest John” and therefore don’t need much proof. The allegation that ex Peter Reith staffer, Ian Hanke is involved in a “dirt unit” which is the source of these allegations is enough to bring up visions of “children overboard” which will resonate with these voters. Ex-Costello staffer Nikki Savva is also alleged to be involved in the same unit, but don’t expect to hear many Labor references to her because she doesn’t have the same connections.
It will also resonate with decent Australians who don’t like personality politics. The risk for Latham is that these Australians will decide that his press conference was just a stage-managed ploy, or worse.
There are a number of reasons that they might come to that conclusion. For one, there is Latham’s sudden change in demeanour. On Friday when he talked to John Laws he was robust, joking and blokey, then on Monday he is tearful. Yet the allegations that the Nine programme aired were all old hat and not the sensation that they had been promoted as. Most of us would be relieved to find that this was all they had – why wasn’t he?
Latham also has a reputation for being aggressive, uncaring, and in his own words, a “hater”. How does that square with his apparent sensitivity about his own position? He will justify it by saying that he has never attacked anyone’s family – and I can’t see an example of him doing that – but will the public care? Or will they say, even if you haven’t done that, you’ve contributed to the vicious atmosphere of today’s politics, so it’s a meaningless distinction.
Latham names three possible sources of the smears – his ex-wife, former Labor Party colleagues and the Liberal Party – but he tends to load all of the blame on the Liberal Party. When you examine the material that surfaced on the weekend, all of it comes from his former comrades and former spouse – why blame the Liberal Party?
Then there is the fact that in his press conference he introduced a number of allegations of which most of us, including established outlets for gossip, rumour and innuendo, like Crikey!, were unaware. He referred to an allegation of sexual harassment, and also that he had broken a man’s collarbone.
Interestingly he referred to allegations about his father. But as Tim Blair points out on his aptly named blog “Spleenville” the only allegations in the public domain about Latham’s father are allegations that he made himself sometime last year.
Yesterday morning on ABC radio Latham said that people were inquiring about what his wife had done at school, and into things about his then 13 year old sister.
Latham would no doubt argue that he is inoculating the public against further allegations, but the government might argue that he is deliberately attributing to them the work of journalists who might be trying to find legitimate non-contentious background on him and his family, which he is representing as a conspiracy. Why would a political party be interested in these sorts of details, even one that was planning to smear him? The government might even assert that these things are the work of Latham’s imagination and never in fact happened.
The ordinary voter might also wonder whether the “dirt unit” is real. A number of senior gallery journalists, including Michelle Grattan, Glen Milne, Dennis Shanahan, and Laurie Oakes, have said that the Liberal Party has never approached them with a personal Latham smear. If, as Latham claims, journalists are being approached by the Liberal Party and then approaching his office for comment, which journalists in particular are these? Of course, this question can be settled quite easily by journalists coming forward and admitting they have been approached. I assume that Latham’s office is already on the case as they apparently know who the journalists are.
There is no issue of confidentiality of sources, so the matter should be easily able to be cleared up. If these journalists need a middleman who will protect their identities, then I’m available. If no journalists come forward, then Latham has some explaining to do to ordinary Australians.
One of the strengths of the reverse smear is that it plays to a strong and well-accepted narrative in our society. Australians love victims and under-dogs waltzing their matildas or being gunned down in their home-made armour. We are suckers for Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest.
It also is a variation of “the boy who cried wolf”. In the traditional version of that tune, it is the boy who is not believed. In the reverse smear, by accusing the other side of underhand tactics you ensure that anything they say will be seen as underhand, and no matter what your opponents say they will not be believed, and the more they say it the less they will be believed.
Latham’s performance also had something messianic about it. Labor is good at themes and mythology. Latham presents himself as the fulfillment of the Labor tradition. So, just as Gough Whitlam made his mark by withdrawing the troops from Vietnam, Latham pegs his reputation on bringing our boys and girls home from Iraq. When the centenary of the elevation of future Labor Rat and at the time, first and youngest ever, Australian Labor Prime Minister Chris Watson comes around, Latham is cast as the new Watson, (without any mention of Watson’s subsequent defection). Now that there is an aspersion against his name, he does an impression of Bob Hawke, Labor’s most successful Australian Prime Minister. Latham is the embodiment of the tradition, and we can expect him to do Curtin and Chifley before too long.
He is also an admirer of Bill Clinton, and this tactic is very similar to that used by Clinton to deflect attention from his personal life in the US elections. This leaves Latham open once more to the charge of plagiarism.
This election is shaping up to be one of the nastiest yet. At the moment Latham has more motivated people on his side than Howard. That can change. If the election becomes a competition between two politicians who will do “whatever it takes” to win, then he may stir up passions on the other side of politics from people who to date feel no animosity towards him, and who are even well-disposed towards him. Most of us vote in line with habit, even if we flirt around between elections, and do not need too many excuses to vote as we did last time again. Monday’s press conference will either break some of those habits, or confirm them.

Posted by Graham at 11:33 am | Comments (2) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Iam one of those who will probably vote labor because I despise the Hon. Howard, but I think Margo Kingston made a comment that I agree with concerning Latham “He feels like he is capable of something special, we’re not sure what that is, but it is going to be special”.
    I look at that comment and the one you have made above about Watson and his defection to the Nationalist Party (and the comparison between him and Latham) and I think about the policies that he has subscribed to, and you could almost say that he is (politically) JC Watson reborn; especially his socially conservative values and insular foreign policies.
    I was reminded of Bob Hawke when I saw Latham on the news the other night, and I agree with you that he will win support because of his emotional reaction to personal attacks (unless you saw the ‘jovial’ interview with lawsie the previous day).
    All of this personal mudracking looks like a mild mirror of the last US Presidential Election, if this is the way our elections are going to be fought in the future Iam very worried indeed…
    …Can’t wait for the election advertising

    Comment by matt byrne — July 7, 2004 @ 12:56 pm

  2. I think the strong comparison with Watson that they were trying to draw was that youth is no barrier to running the country. And also that the Labor Party is the oldest political party in Australia. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this period of Australian history, so the fact that like Hughes and Lyons he had deserted the Labor Party escaped me for some time. Most writers at the time didn’t comment on it, even though I think it is one of the most important historical facts about his life. I figured that was because the Labor Party didn’t have an interest in pointing out that so many of their leaders have subsequently jumped ship. It might raise questions about whether Latham is just a cupboard Liberal!

    Comment by Graham Young — July 7, 2004 @ 4:17 pm

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