Quarterly Essay‘s issue #49 has former Labor leader Mark Latham advising his former party on what it needs to do to return as the answer to Australia’s needs. He hopes that his time out of politics has allowed his views to mature, because he ought now to be able to benefit from recognising his own past errors of judgment. Maybe so.

I once shared a platform with Mark Latham. He was then the Opposition’s spokesman on education, I think, and he presented his views on education and what ought to be done. He set up a neat little schema, and showed how the kneebone was connected to the thighbone, and so on. The policy consequences were obvious, and he dwelled on them. The only catch was that his neat little schema was a model of the education system, not the system itself, with all its messiness, historical baggage, self-interest, parental dreams and student disenchantment. His policy proposals might sound good, but they wouldn’t do much good  — or so I thought, anyway.

I was reminded of that episode in reading the new QE. Mark Latham is bright enough, and he can write well, but to me he comes across as a clever, rather slapdash undergraduate, quick to come to a view, and energetic in supporting it. But my reaction, now as then, is to note at the bottom of the essay: ‘You really needed to do a lot more work on this before you handed it in’ and to award much less than the High Distinction he clearly thought it warranted.

His diagnosis is no different to that of Rod Cavalier, or the various grey eminence committees that have offered explanations of why Labor has done so badly over the past few years. They point to the power of faction leaders, the weakness of the branch system, the low numbers of party members. Latham adds some more about the changing nature of the workforce, the improvement in living standards of the former working class, and the lack of broad vision among our politicians.

I almost cheered when I came across his advice that Labor should initiate ‘a mature, factual debate about the limits of economic policy. It needs to explain to the electorate how the role of government has fundamentally changed …. The ALP needs to talk openly about these truths, dismantling the politics of false financial expectations’.

I agree, but who is to do this? Such advice is more likely to come from a Liberal leader than from the ALP. His suggestions for the reform of the governance of the Labor Party are sensible, if not new, but more powerful figures than Mark Latham have put them forward without effect. He sees education as the great need, not just as a policy framework for the ALP but for our whole society, and laments our current status in international rankings.

But comparing Australia with Hong Kong or Singapore is pretty silly, all things considered, and rank orders don’t tell you very much about relative performance. He should read Professor Dinham’s trenchant criticism of the way people use PISA scores to anguish about the quality of what is, in world terms, a very good education system.

When he gets into ‘climate change’ and how Labor needs to sell its policies on that to the Australian electorate I feel that an F grade is what is really appropriate. He points out that ‘On the big sweeping claims of public life, people want hard evidence: expert information which corresponds with their own experience.’ I would agree, and wonder why Mark Latham hasn’t followed their example.

The proportions worrying about ‘climate change’ have been declining steadily since 2009, despite the constant references in our media to global warming, weird weather, climate change, climate disruption and all the rest of it. Surely one reason is that the hard evidence is lacking. The doom-sayers keep predicting outcomes that don’t happen. We were to have perpetual droughts, and then came floods. We were to have increasingly hot weather but, despite the predictions, there has been a long pause in the warming, despite continual increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Every time a predicted event fails the doom-sayers come up with an explanation, but after a time people begin to feel that these guys don’t know as much as they think. Mark Latham’s preparedness to follow the orthodoxy on ‘climate change’ and belittle those who don’t agree with him doesn’t do much for his case.

And to suggest that Labor Party should get out there and combat scepticism about global warming seems to me pretty silly. The Government set up the Climate Commission to do just that, but it has done an abysmal job. The way to combat scepticism about anything is to engage with the sceptics and show how they are wrong. But neither the Government nor the Climate Commission has shown any interest in engaging with anyone.

Like Mark Latham, they talk about ‘consensus’ and the views of learned societies, and label as ‘deniers’ those who disagree, and want to point to contrasting evidence. With great respect, that’s not going to cut the mustard with today’s electorate, which — as Mark Latham himself points out — is well educated and capable of making up its own mind.

His Latham Diaries sold well because of who wrote it, and the insights it provided into the author. But it had little affect on the flow of Australian politics. I feel that the same fate awaits this essay.

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