September 29, 2005
Margo: Mark, I thought I’d start with a few questions from Webdiarists.
Margo:The first is from Craig Warton and he’s asked, if you could turn back time would you have pursued the path of politics to try and achieve your goals for Australia, or would you, perhaps, chosen another path?
Mark: Well difficult question in that I never find contemplating the turning back of time to be all that healthy a process; it’s just so futile.
I know it’s futile. I guess the point is –
Well I suppose the best way for me to answer to it is that tonight in Melbourne I’m giving a lecture on the ten reasons why a young idealistic person these days should avoid organised politics. If they want to make a contribution to society, do it at a community level, helping out with charities and local community and welfare organisations to try and help people and generate a more cohesive caring society. So, yeah, if I was born tomorrow or was a young person leaving University tomorrow, I’d think that was a better path.
So you’re really going, okay, the only way to achieve social democracy in Australia is bottom-up. You cannot actually do it by entering a mainstream political party and doing it from the top-down. That’s, is that –
Well I think our major problems in Australia are social, not economic, I mean we’re a prosperous nation with a long, long period of economic growth and you compare that to the horrific increase in family and community breakdown, the rise of mental illnesses, social isolation, whole range of problem our young people face these days. The paradox has been as the economy has grown rapidly, the quality of society has deteriorated just as rapidly and I think it’s more important for people to think about ways in which you can address those social problems than play the political game which inevitably at election time is about economics.
Well, this is a question from me, you say in your Introduction that this book is my exit from all forms of politics, yet reading the Introduction, it seems to me that the only way to achieve social democracy is to engage in politics at some level. So I was just wondering if you really meant ‘organised politics’?
Well organised politics, politics as the Australian people understand it, which is belonging to a political party and running for Parliament.
So you’re trying to, through this book, say to the Australian people there is another form of politics and it’s really important that you get involved at its community level – and then what? I mean how do you bring that together?
Well people already know that, they live in communities and neighbourhoods, but the rise of materialism and I think the voyeuristic culture people are increasingly turning inwards and I argue in the Introduction for people who read the book, that as much as possible people should contribute to their local community and try to rebuild social capital and trust and cohesion.
One of the things that I found most interesting in the Introduction, and Mark that’s all I’ve read because I’ve been running around on my own thing but I’m definitely intending to read the whole thing –
Well the Introduction’s sort of a summary of the themes in the book. The Diary entries, of course, are contemporary and lively and raw, but the Introduction is a summary of the overall.
You talk in the Intro about the two options for Labor reform, the first being independence from the unions, not possible, you’d split the party; the second being forming a mass political organisation – too difficult. Would you think there’s any chance for a mass political organisation that actually wasn’t part of the major parties, that was, I don’t know, a movement which could take in a lot of Australians who are disillusioned with mainstream politics however they vote? I suppose I’m getting to this thing that you did, that Internet Democracy experiment, and I’m just looking for what – can you imagine possibilities utilising the net as a means for Australians to rescue the system so that they have got a real alternative again, to get the debate moving?
Oh well you get different attempts at this. Someone was telling me about (inaudible) which is some sort of Internet Democracy Movement and so forth but in the end you’re dealing with a limited audience, you know. I reach the conclusion that maybe 15% of the electorate is well informed, progressive, interested in politics and otherwise you’ve got a lot of conservatism and a lot of apathy. So you can mobilise some people but in a democracy you need to mobilise the majority and I don’t see that happening.
This is a question from David Eastwood. He asks, do you really believe that in 3 years time you’ll be a house dad to the exclusion of being active in politics, however defined, to keep going with your vision, I guess, for Australia?
Oh, well, he’ll need to read the book to see what happened to the vision. I’m very, very happy doing what I do now. I’m looking forward to getting back to it full-time once the publicity for the book is over and, you know, at home we’ve sorted out our work and family balance and things are going exceptionally well, so, I’m not into forecast about 3 or 30 years time from now, but certainly uninclined to change a winning formula.
Okay. Another question from David Eastwood. How do you reconcile your exposure of others in this book with your pleas for privacy and respect for your family and your personal space? I mean, I got a pretty clear idea in your Author’s Note that you wrestled with this, so what, how have you grounded yourself in this?
Well people are mentioned in instances where my privacy was being invaded and the names of the journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald who wrote that horrendous piece supposedly about my sex life. What other instances are you talking about? I know this has circulated through the media, the John Laws (inaudible) been mentioned in the book because I had lunch with him, and I laughed. Journalists who talk about people daily in the media, on talk-back radio and the like who don’t like being mentioned or recorded what they said walking off planes or other conversations that were had along the byways of the political scene, but, well what’s the problem in that? The media people we’re talking about live by the motto “the public’s right to know”, well surely there’s time when the public’s got the right to know something about them other than the façade they put up in their journalism or their broadcasting.
Well you’ve got no argument with me there, Mark, I assure you.
Unless I can get specific examples it’s very hard to respond. Anyway that’s my general response.
Sure. Well I guess what I’m talking about is your disclosure of conversations which, say the Paul Lennon thing, which he would have assumed to be private. It’s more getting down to that. I mean you say in the book that for several reasons some things were left out etc, but many of your colleagues, as you know, would think that you’ve disclosed stuff that was said in confidence.
Well, look, I mean, whole books have been written about me very often based on things that didn’t happen, but things that did happen and there’s a public consequence or a public interest. I mean the Paul Lennon, Richard Butler controversy involved a huge payout of money; it involves Lennon lying to the Tasmanian people and still failing to disclose what actually happened. I mean when the Governor is ditched people have got the right to know, I think, in a democracy. I mean when they payout $650,000 of taxpayers’ money, I think the Tasmanian public’s got the right to know what the Premier was saying about this, talking to a federal colleague who had been critical about the payout. That’s how he raised it, it was also a sort of, a diversion from having to talk to me about Forest Policy, try and help Federal Labor, but he said these things, they sounded like they were the genuine reasons why he got rid of Richard Butler and why shouldn’t the people of Tasmania know what the Premier did, why he did it and the true reason why they had to payout $650,000.
Yeah I guess one thing that arises, and you grapple with this in your Introduction, is it sounds as though you always thought of your diaries as an official record, an in-the-moment record I suppose like my first book on Hanson, and then you had to make the decision whether you’d wait until the heat died down like Blewett’s diaries, so it didn’t really matter any more – or go now. Now I get the feeling, you know, underneath everything that’s said, that the feeling about going now is that you really are trying to open up the public discussion on this and almost sort of burst through the media silence and the media framing. Could you just talk me through a bit about why now?
Well I think you’ve summed it up perfectly. You’ve summed it up perfectly with the additional reason that every man and his dog inside the Labor Party had their say – normally off-the-record briefings to journalists after the 2004 Election about what they claim had gone on or hadn’t gone on. I mean it’s all like Kaiser, who I had minimal contact with through 2004, must have provided thousands, tens of thousands of backgrounded words to journalists, newspapers, book authors. I think he’ll be at it again with Annabel Crabbs’ book in a couple of days from what I can understand, so, you know, why did Kaiser get to say tens of thousands of words about what went on and I’m in the middle of it, seeing all of these things, knowing that an electoral rorter like Kaiser’s not telling the truth. Why should I be silent? So I think you’ve summed it up well with that additional reason of not allowing off-the-record lies to be told about what really went on and allowing that to stand uncorrected on the public record.
Okay. Question from Webdiarist Margaret Morgan. Which organisation do you hold in more contempt – the ALP or the Liberal Party?
Oh I don’t really hold any organisation in contempt as such. I’ve got an analysis, a view of what goes on. There are many good people inside the Labor Party, but the Party’s been captured by the machinemen, it’s a hierarchy, it’s an oligarchy now and I think that’s regrettable, so it’s not a question of contempt, it’s a question of analysis and detailing my experiences as they happened and people being able to read the book and make their own judgement.
This is a question from Webdiarist Kerri Browne which is, she’s looking for something from you on your analysis of power; what forms of power there are and whether, in fact, your ordinary backbencher or even your political leader doesn’t really have much power and one of the tricks of the modern process is to pretend that they do, so, I know that’s a difficult question, but –
Oh no, I think I know what she’s getting at in that there are illusions of power, one of the illusions is the political class with an air of self-importance, just hates the idea of admitting that the Australian people hold politics in disrepute. I mean the level of trust about politicians is low, the level of trust about journalists is even lower, these are not well regarded institutions, but their illusion of power is to put out the air that all this matters, fills space in the media and occupies umpteen TV and radio talk shows. If they owned up to the fact that a lot of it has just become entertainment, where politics is demonised and trivialised and it’s all just for ratings and commercial gain, well, you know, the gig’d be up! So there is an illusion of power there and my conclusion is that individually community empowerment, which is real-life and substantial, is a lot more important than the illusions of party politics.
Just from Crikey, it looks like you predicted the Stokes’ explosion that’s happened yesterday.
The what explosion?
Kerry Stokes’ evidence.
Oh yeah, yeah, oh well I predicted it, he gave me a long, long outline about all the things that’ll now occupy the Court for many months, if not years!
Well we’re talking here about an insider, I see similarities here, an insider blowing the whistle as far as he’s game anyway, on the real, the real power, which is the power of the, well, according to Stokes’ evidence, really the power of Murdoch – even James, even the Packers say yes to Murdoch. Now how do Australians keep themselves informed given this incredible concentration of power in media? Do you have any suggestions, and, I suppose I’m saying, if someone like Stokes is going to get in there, Telstra’s starting to get in there too, do you think we might be approaching some sort of tilting point, to use Howard’s phrase?
There’s no doubt that politics has become like an elected aristocracy and the big media houses are an unelected aristocracy. They’ve got power concentrated in their hands. In a small country like ours you’ve only got, what, two print media houses, a handful of TV stations, what are the alternatives? I think we’ve got to do everything we can to support the ABC, its independence, its funding, its vital role in our society. People have got to bypass the commercial media as much as they can and go to original source documents. That’s why so many people are saying, just my example, that when they read this book it’s very different to what they’ve heard in the media, so people have got to go to original source documents as much as they can and pursue alternatives – media such as your project Margo, so, you know, there’s 3 or 4 things there that people can do. And hopefully well-educated people will understand that most of what they get in the commercial media is a trivialisation of important issues, inventions, unethical behaviour, trying to feed voyeurism in our society rather than present information in the conventional sense. So you really rely on a better educated society making those judgements and becoming more discerning about its information sources.
I don’t know if you’re following the mainstream media these days, but I thought it was really interesting head-to-head polls that two print groups today – the Fairfax going on ‘it’s a long-term slide for Beazley’ and Dennis Shanahan going on ‘Latham Ruins Beazley’s chances’ – same poll data – I just wondered if you’ve had a look at that stuff and whether you had a theory about it?
Oh well the Murdoch Group are political players. I recorded in the diary an early lunch with the people from The Telegraph where it wasn’t about facts and information – it was about who they like, who they dislike and sort of good food, good wine and good slagging of people through their newspapers. So it’s a very, very personalised agenda and, you know, some time back people were telling me a month or so ago there were Australian newspaper headlines like “Beazley Takes on the Issue” or “Beazley’s Slide to the Centre” and Beazley’s doing this and Beazley’s doing that, and I mean you don’t have to be Einstein to work out that something’s gone on behind the scenes there where, for whatever reason, the Murdoch people were backing in Beazley. So, you know, none of this is objective; none of it’s independent. It’s a company that runs on very, very personalised agendas and basically the people that they are suspicious about are those that they can’t control and manipulate.
Can I get back to, I remember, I think it was years ago, it might have been when you were on the backbench after 98, you experimented with electronic democracy in Werriwa and you mentioned this in your Introduction. Have you developed any ideas about how this could work and actually have an impact, a significant input into public debate, public discourse?
Well the diary entries record how the experiment basically failed, and I think you’d need a far higher level of public interest in politics and a far higher public penetration of internet use to, or take-up of internet use, to make this successful. You know, I think one of the problems of the internet is that it hasn’t sort of generated a new age of enlightenment. It can be a useful tool used properly, but in a lot of ways it’s just sort of feeding the voyeuristic culture in which we live that feeds the first to know about celebrities, get behind people’s private lives and see what they’re really doing. I mean that’s one of the problems of the internet, it’s got a dangerous side to it, particularly when you get into illegal activities like, you know, child pornography and child sex abuse and the like. So it’s a double-edged sword.
There seems to me, Mark, to be sort of an internal contradiction in what you’re saying in terms of you’re saying there’s no hope for the Labor Party in terms of, you know, the goal of furthering social democracy, so that we get back to the There Is No Alternative. How do we break through this impasse, or are we – you seem to be implying that we’re on an inevitable slide away from social democracy and there’s not much that any of us can do about it, like given that Labor’s got no hope. Surely you’ve sort of thought through for a more optimistic message?
Well, not necessarily. I think individuals and communities can make a difference in their own patch, but with the rise in materialism, the narrow infotainment that we get in the coverage of politics, I am pessimistic about the direction in which our society is headed and the direction in which the political system is headed and pessimistic about the prospects of social democracy. They’re the conclusions. I wish it was otherwise. I don’t take any joy in this, it’s not a satisfying thing by any means. It’s pessimistic and bleak, but it’s the nature of a diary that you record things, you see things and you give a frank account of what’s happening around you and I can do no other.
I’m sort of more looking at where you are now, like obviously you’ve put a huge emphasis, and always have since you had your first son, on the family and I keep thinking, well, given that you’ve got a bleak prognosis and given that, you know, having children is about, you know, working for their future, isn’t there any way you see that you could somehow participate in public life to try and secure their future?
Oh it’s much more valuable for them to have regular environment around the home than one parent who’s disappeared travelling around the rest of the country for most of the time. The children are much better off having a normal environment in the home where they see a lot of both parents to have a parent or two parents who are off doing political stuff.
Yeah I don’t disagree with you about the balance that you’re seeking. I suppose one of the reasons I’m asking this is I read some quotes from Inside Edge Melbourne, The Melbourne Age Business Section where you said that if you ever became a newspaper columnist that you, someone was to push you off a cliff or something like that! I just thought well why wouldn’t you want to have your voice in the context of a regular column, like just to sort of participate in the public process?
Oh I’ve been there, done that. I’ve written books. People know what I think about issues, unlike a lot of politicians I put my name to my words, so, you know, I don’t have to continue down that path. I’ve sort of been there, done that. That’s the attitude I’ve got. You can’t do it forever and I’ve made a judgement that the best break you can make from politics is as clean a break as possible, you know, I’ve written this book and doing the rounds of publicity to talk about it, but thereafter I’m goodbye Charlie!
So this, Mark, you said in that interview too that you didn’t mind the media because this was the way for you to have deliverance almost, to see the light at the end of the tunnel. So it’s almost as though –
Oh no, she asked me ‘how are you finding the media for this round of publicity’, I said oh well, putting up with it because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. That is, two weeks of doing the media rounds and then I go back to what I, to the thing that satisfies me most, which is being a home dad.
Mark, and I know this is a terrible question to ask and you mightn’t want to answer and that’s fine, but, is your health okay? Like, I mean, your physical health.
Yeah, no, the physical health has improved for being out of politics so that’s a good sign, you know, I haven’t had a Pancreatitis attack this year and I hope it stays that way, you know. I think the lifestyle is so much better, the diet’s so much better, exercise is so much better, general health and satisfaction is so much better, so all of that, all of that’s a very good sign that obviously I made the right decision getting out in January.
I’ve no doubt that getting out of politics will put years on my life.
No doubt at all, so I mean, you can’t argue with that. That’s a good decision.
It’s a survival decision isn’t it. I mean it’s just so simple. Because you’ve got two kids for a start and a wife.
Yeah well that’s why I made the decision in the first place, you see, along with other factors that are in this book, so, you know, all of that is pretty important, and you know, (inaudible) things around my state of mind and blah, blah, blah, but realistically I’ve always seen this as a rational, sane, logical thing to do and I’m sure there’d be a vast number of Australians in the same circumstances would do exactly the same thing.
Mmm. Okay. So can I say this – that getting the balance right means that there is every likelihood that you can, you know, live to a proper time, like, you know, you can see your kids grow up?
Well there’s an uncertainty about having a damaged pancreas.
But you don’t put a timeframe on it, it’s more about maximising whatever you’ve got. You know – maximising your longevity is the name of the game, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
One of the, you know, many worries I have in reading the Intro and stuff is that given the state of organised politics and, you know, my view anyway, like its co-option by the media, like Michelle Grattan said recently there’s so much sound and fury signifying nothing yet we all take up 24 hours of airtime and then move on, and you know, it’s like –
Oh well she’s taken up an entire lifetime! I’ve always thought of Michelle and people like her in the galleries that are like a racehorse caller, that horse No. 1’s moved up, horse No. 2’s fallen back half a length, horse No. 3 is hit the running rail, horse No. 4’s hit a soft patch on the track – it’s just sort of calling them as they go around and after one lap normally they’re back in the same order in which they started, so all of that does have a futility to it.
Yeah I guess what I’m trying to get at is, given the state of organised politics and what you have to go through to get there and the fact that you haven’t got much power at the end anyway, how can Australians turn this around? I mean do you, how can Australians get to vote for people of quality regardless of party? How can we get decent people into politics? How can we turn this around? Should we start voting for Independents? What mechanism have Australians got?
Oh well people have got to make their own decisions in a democracy about who they vote for…
[End of Side 1 of Tape]
…those that have come through the system on both sides and the second is the, sort of personal agenda, large part sex agenda, people who come through the religious rite, these fanatics who want to impose their values on the rest of society so you need a fanaticism to survive the political work environment which is so destructive for people and that fanaticism in itself, whether it’s a machineman or a religious rite fanatic, is just incredibly unhealthy. I mean you’ve need to have a healthy class of people in the political system and the trends over the last 20 years in that regard have been horrendous.
I was just thinking about that, was it your seat where the insiders got rid of the Mayor of Campbelltown as the frontrunner because they said he defended a pornographer?
Yeah I think he was knocked out because he defended a guy in Court, I don’t know what the guy done in Court, but I mean, for goodness sake, the guy’s a lawyer!
Yeah I know, that’s what I mean.
Dogs bark, lawyers defend people in Court.
Oh I know it was outrageous -.
He was rubbed out, I suppose, for doing his job which is not a public disservice, I mean defending people, in many cases they’re innocent and they need defence.
Yeah, what I’m getting at is that that guy, who sounds like a pretty good guy to me, he’s trying bottom-up through being a Mayor which is the way you started, but there is a limited thing that you can do, things that you can do as a Local Government with, you know, with all sorts of Trade Agreements being signed, Investment Agreements, I mean how can Local Government look at, you know, junk food advertising in kids’ time, all that stuff.
He’s been a pretty capable local Mayor, but the real travesty there was that the guy they selected, Chris Hayes, hadn’t been to a local Labour Party Branch Meeting in 20 years, so it was almost like the hard-working Local Government mayor would’ve been better off being inactive if the reward was for the person who hadn’t been to a Branch Meeting in 20 years, that was an innocuous “yes” man to the Head Office Group. They put him in for that reason, whereas the hard-working person, the lawyer – I think also Steven Chater was in this category – the people who’ve been put in (inaudible) if they had a profile and someone sort of said there was a problem in one or two things they’d done, they were penalised for that. So it’s almost like the absolute lowest common denominator of apathy and inactivity gets the nod from the Party machinemen.
Yeah I guess what I’m getting at is what say that guy had have stood as Independent Labour, you know, the movement towards sort of local Independent in the bush and the regions particularly. Is that a way for Australians to react, to sort of, just almost do a Hansonesque thing and just toss the powerball in the air and give Independents and the minor parties the balance of power in the Reps? I mean is there anything, you know –
(inaudible) decisions Margo. I’m out of that caper and all I can do is put the evidence forward as I found it and people have got to make their own judgement. I think there’s a lot of useful things that can be done at individual and neighbourhood and community level, but people have got to find their own passions and take them up.
Okay, well that’s about it from me, unless there’s any other question you want.
Okay. Good luck with your project. Sounds excellent.
Thanks Mark. Can I ask you one question before we go off?
I think that Fairfax mob, I’m after that bloody Debra Snow/Damien Murphy mob, all their bloody pretence about ethics and moralising about journalistic standards. I just think it’s all bunkum!
Well Mark, as I said, I haven’t read your actual diaries yet, but my memory is that it was The Sydney Morning Herald who first reported as fact that buck’s night thing.
Yeah, Louise Dobson.
Well, you know! That doesn’t make sense. Did she report that as fact without confirmation and without sourcing?
Yep, yep. Absolutely.
Alright, last question, is it okay if I run your speech tonight on Webdiary after delivery?
Okay fantastic. Good luck and I’ll be there tonight and I’m just hoping for a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. This “bleak stuff”, I mean, you know, you can’t just throw us that and then just go bugger you!
I’ll be putting my conclusions forward.
Latham’s speech: Ten reasons why young idealistic people should forget about organised politics