This was his only Sydney appearance to promote his book. Gleebooks was packed. I'd say evenly split between ALP supporters who hate Latham for revealing the parlous state of the party and others who find his insights both compelling and necessary. I'm certainly in this category, though I've never been a fan of Latham nor his policies while in politics. His Diaries, however, remain the most compelling Australian political book of the year.
The Australian reports on the evening as if Latham said something controversial. Instead, he argued that John Howard was "happy" about the recent Sydney riots and still held "racist" views. The Oz explains:
"He [Latham] repeatedly referred to Mr Howard's 1988 comments about the need to slow down Asian immigration and insisted the Prime Minister would still hold these 'racist' views.
"'If you want to have a look at Howard's Australia, you should have been down at Cronulla.'"Latham was simply stating a political reality. Politicians manipulate fear to create uncertainty and citizens are therefore less likely to change parties during such times. The "war on terror" has been grossly exaggerated and he said he was more worried about the competency of ASIO than a terrorist attack. There is a terrorist threat, he said, but it's minimal and the mainstream media and political elites continually stir up imaginary threats to scare voters and keep readers buying their products. He said that during ASIO briefings while he was leader, he came away feeling unsure about what they actually knew, their ability to catch "terrorists" and the vagueness of their reports.
Ariel Sharon benefits politically when terror attacks hit Israel and successive Israeli leaders have provoked Palestinian militants to provide the necessary political cover. Likewise in the US. Bush benefited after 9/11 and another terror attack on US soil - unless the administration could be proven to have been asleep at the wheel - would likely benefit Bush. Howard is no different, and saying so should not be controversial.
Latham discussed the recent Sydney race riots and claimed that Howard's Australia produced them. He believed that the political system was dead and incapable of change. He urged - not unlike his recent talk at Melbourne University - that young people interested in politics should avoid the major parties and instead work in community groups and building social relations. The system was so corrupt, Latham warned, people shouldn't waste their time even trying to solve it. He, of course, thought he could change the ALP, though failed miserably.
Question time was intriguing. Some were mightily pissed off with Latham and wondered how he could take so much from the ALP, then trash it so thoroughly. He said that everybody had had their say, so why shouldn't he? Fair enough answer, I thought. He was accused of not having enough "discipline" during the 2004 election campaign, "because if you had, we could have won." One ALP member after another stood up and asked what grass-root members were supposed to think of the party now. Surely they didn't need Latham to tell them the hard truths.
He was asked about his views on Howard. "I once called him an arse-licker", he said, "and I have no reason to change my view now."
The assembled crowd were agitated and frustrated. Howard's Australia has become unsettling for a large minority of the population and some people seemingly wanted Latham to find a way, any way, out.
Latham's observations were astute and honest. Since leaving politics, he has nothing to lose and therefore his comments carry more weight than most serving politicians. "The thing that has sustained multiculturalism, until the past week, is Australian apathy", he said. Perhaps he is right. The kind of Australia that is likely to emerge in the coming years is still being created. We should reject the politics of fear. It will only lead us down the path towards an insular, small-minded and exclusionary future.
Australia can be much better than that, but do enough people agree?