Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Political Bubble

The Political Bubble: Why Australian’s Don’t Trust Pollitics
by Mark LathamPolitical bubble

Cliff notes review: Mark Latham declares politics too tribal and banal. And then spends several chapters proving by acting in that exactly fashion himself.

This is an unfortunately lazy book from Latham. He begins well, and if you have 10 minutes to spare in a bookshop, there is value in to reading the opening chapter. Latham’s picked up on some of the international debate about authority and influence – such as Moises Naim’s excellent The End of Power – and engages with it. He even notes that he is uniquely placed to apply these to Australia, stating ‘Ostracism has its advantages. It gives me a chance to play a different, more instructive role: writing objectively about the changing nature of power and public trust’.

Only Latham never takes up that chance. Crash-tackling any serious notion of objectivity, Latham devotes four long chapters to attacking right wing figures like Abbott, Bolt, Rinehart, and his old favourite Henderson. Quite how these chapters are related to his larger theme of ‘Why Australian’s don’t trust politics’ other than in a simplistic ‘Those bastards are lying’ theme is never explained. If you followed these debates you don’t need to read these chapters. If you didn’t you wouldn’t want to. Maybe these will appeal to those for whom political tribalism is their defining identity, but then I thought such people were Latham’s target, not his target audience.

Latham excuses his lack of writing on the Left and Labor by claiming he has already done so before, such as in his 2004 Diaries. Which is a shame, because the one chapter he writes on the left is halfway decent. Many on the left will hate it, and a lot of it is trite. But unlike the chapters on the right, Latham goes beyond citations of sin and begins to justify his claim about a disconnect between the public and left wing politics and links it to larger themes. It still feels like a few long op-ed’s stuck together, but it makes sense in a way the earlier chapters on Climate Change or the supposed Gillard/AWU scandal don’t.

For those with a economic liberal bent, there’s much to like in Latham’s prescriptions, and I’m left wishing he would write a book solely on what the ALP’s economic policy should be. (I know he wrote long treaties in the 1990s on global capitalism, but no one should have to suffer through those). Something serious and along the lines of how to recover the Keating compact of free markets, an emphasis on competition and a basic saftey net could have a real impact. Maybe next time. That said, the theme Latham occasionally highlights ‘thanks to growth and deregulation people don’t need politics as much as they used to’ has been made elsewhere and better. I’d recommend the ‘Declaration of Independents’ by Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie for a much better effort.

The disappointment of this book is that in arguing modern Australian politics is banal and tribal, Latham demonstrates his point by being banal and tribal. This is persuasive, but in a way that seems somewhat too literal and pedantic. In summary, the first chapter is worth reading, and future Latham books will be worth keeping an eye on, but you can probably leave this one off your shelves.