Where does Mark Latham sit among Labor rats?

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Mark Latham, not quite king of the rats (Image via YouTube screenshot)

Mark Latham is a Labor rat, but far from the greatest one, writes Dr Benjamin T. Jones.

FEDERAL LABOR has won 35 consecutive Newspolls since Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. Despite this strong showing, the upcoming “Super Saturday” by-elections will provide a stern test. Five seats, four currently held by Labor, are up for grabs on 28 July. While it was expected that the Coalition would fiercely contest these seats, the intervention of a former Federal Labor leader against his old party took some by surprise.

Mark Latham was the member for Gough Whitlam’s old seat of Werriwa between 1994 and 2005. He rose to Opposition Leader in 2003 and led Labor to a disastrous defeat at the 2004 election. Latham has long since burned his bridges with the ALP, but was officially banned for life last year for joining another party.

He has been a vocal critic of the ALP and its subsequent leaders, and is now a right-wing commentator. According to David Leyonhjelm, he is a paid-up member of the libertarian-right Liberal Democrats. His enthusiastic support for U.S. President Trump and alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos indicates how far his politics have shifted.

Nevertheless, it was still remarkable, at least to some, to see a former leader actively campaign against Labor in the leadup to the Longman by-election. The north Brisbane seat is currently held by Labor’s Susan Lamb with a 0.8 per cent margin. The seat also has a strong One Nation base, with Pauline Hanson’s party securing 9.4 per cent in 2016.

Latham recorded a robocall advertisement for One Nation and another one for the Liberal Democrats in which he labelled Bill Shorten a “liar”.

The response from Labor has been swift and damning. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has said Latham will be remembered as “one of the great Labor rats of history”. Former Labor Senator and powerbroker Graham Richardson described Latham as a “traitor” and “king rat”. Latham is rumoured to be eyeing a return to Federal politics and is being courted by some minor parties. If he does return to the political fray, he will join a tradition of Labor defectors.

The term “rat” has particular currency in Labor mythology. The earliest rats were those from New South Wales, who refused to accept the pledge of solidarity in the late 19th Century. Early in the new century, the term was expanded to include members, particularly a state level, who would not follow directives from the federal caucus. This was brought to a head at the 1911 referendum to extend Commonwealth powers. Despite being introduced by the Fisher Labor Government, the proposals sank, with notable opposition from NSW Labor ministers William Holman and George Beeby.

Rat has been a flexible insult within the ALP and has been brandied at those seen to undermine the party or put their own self-interest ahead of the collective. But the most infamous rodents in Labor folklore are high-profile defectors.

Joseph Lyons was a Labor Premier of Tasmania between 1923 and 1928, before switching to Federal politics and serving as a minister in the Scullin Government in 1929. Bitter disagreement over the Government’s response to the Great Depression saw Lyons quit the party and cross the floor in 1931. Together with other defectors, he helped form the new United Australia Party. He would go on to serve as Prime Minister between 1931 and 1939, when he died in office. Lyons treachery (from the view of the Labor faithful) was surpassed only by that of the Little Digger, Billy Hughes.

Hughes was one of the inaugural group of Labor MPs elected to the first Federal Parliament in 1901. In the bloody aftermath of Gallipoli, he succeeded Andrew Fisher as Labor Prime Minister in 1915 and sought to introduce military conscription. This caused the first great split in Labor history. Hughes would leave the Party, taking the prime ministership and much of the Party's talent with him. He would merge his renegades with the Commonwealth Liberals to form the Nationalist Party. Victory at the 1917 election, followed by over a decade of political success, exacerbated the sense of betrayal.

Not all rats are treated equally in Labor’s collective memory. NSW Premier Jack Lang could be considered as much a traitor as Hughes or Lyons. Like Lyons, he strenuously opposed the Scullin response to the Depression but from the other side of the ideological divide (Lang felt the belt-tightening went too far; Lyons, not far enough). Lang was expelled from the party in 1943, took many with him and eventually sat in Federal Parliament as an independent.

Why is Lang remembered more fondly? Unlike Hughes and Lyons, he did not form a new party with Labor’s traditional conservative opponents. His reputation was also restored by Paul Keating, who saw the “Big Fella” as a political mentor. Lang was readmitted to the Labor Party in 1973.

The ideals may be noble, but the mechanics of politics is Machiavellian. Ultimately, the worst rats are the ones that do the worst damage. Hughes and Lyons instigated the first two Labor splits in 1916 and 1931, each with devastating effect. Collectively, the Groupers who forced the 1955 split complete the trident of Labor rats.  

Mark Latham is not the greatest Labor rat. To use a Pythonesque quip, he’s just a very naughty boy. At least, that is likely to be the long-term view when the political dust settles. Any damage Latham could do he has already done through The Latham Diaries and his consistent attacks on the Party ever since. While Turnbull ministers still try to get some currency out of a former Labor leader attacking his old party, it’s a decades-old gag and its impact is gone.

Contrary to Richardson’s assessment, Latham is far from the king rat, precisely because his ability to hurt the ALP is so minimal. And, arguably, he was far more destructive to Labor as leader than as a critic of the party. While the far-right media may greet him as a guest, the conservative Coalition would never consider him as a candidate. Unlike Hughes and Lyons, he will never be burdened with Prime Ministerial success.

His hopes of a return to Canberra seem to rest with David Leyonhjelm, himself a Labor rat. Given the Liberal Democrats won a sole Senate seat in 2013 through mistaken identity and maintained it in 2016 despite a huge loss of votes courtesy of the lower quota in a double dissolution, it is hard to see where Latham fits in. The voter base of the Liberal Democrats may not even support one senator in the future, it certainly won’t carry two.

This leaves Latham where he claims to have always been — an outsider. A Labor rat certainly, but far from the greatest one.

Benjamin T. Jones is a historian at the Australian National University. His next book is titled, Elections Matter: Ten Federal Elections That Helped Shape Australia (Monash University Press). You can pre-order it HERE. You can follow Dr Jones on Twitter @DrBenjaminJones.

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