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Mark William Latham (born February 28, 1961), Australian politician, served as leader of the federal parliamentary Australian Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition from December 2003 to January 2005. Latham captured national attention with his innovative policies and unconventional approach, but also attracted controversy regarding his colourful past. In the October 2004 federal election, Latham was soundly defeated by the incumbent Prime Minister John Howard. Ill health and deteriorating relations with his own party forced him to step down as Leader on 18 January, 2005.
Latham was born in Ashcroft, a suburb of southwestern Sydney in New South Wales. He was educated at Hurlstone Agricultural High School and at the University of Sydney, where he graduated with a degree in economics. He worked as a research assistant to the former Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and worked on Whitlam's book The Whitlam Government. In 1987 he was elected to the city council of Liverpool, a southwestern suburb of Sydney, and was mayor from 1991–94. Latham resigned from the Council due to testicular cancer, which was successfully treated. In 1994, he became the federal member for the Sydney seat of Werriwa (Whitlam's former seat) at a by-election following the resignation of John Kerin .
Latham's term as mayor saw radical changes introduced to the council, with large spending on public works, to be paid for by a combination of loans and efficiencies achieved from "outsourcing" many council services. The public works, including libraries, a pedestrian mall, and public art, have been highly praised in accounts of the period. The council's financial performance, however, has been the subject of extensive debate, with claims by political opponents that Latham's term left the council nearly bankrupt.
In an article in Quarterly Essay (issue 15), journalist Margaret Simons, who conducted an extensive investigation of the period, concluded that there were real issues in the financial management of the council. These were mostly relating to the drafting of the outsourcing agreements. Simons also notes that most of the allegations come from council members who were sacked for incompetence by the state government.
On June 1 2004 Latham told Parliament that during his time as Mayor he had reduced Liverpool's debt-servicing ratio from 17 percent to 10 percent, which he said was less than half of western Sydney's average. He also said that Liverpool had adopted a debt-retirement strategy that he claimed would have made them debt free by 2005, but which was not implemented by his successors. Councillor Colin Harrington, who Latham defeated during the mayoral elections of 1991, later claimed that these figures were not accurate. The average debt-servicing ratio for western Sydney was 12.1 percent and he said the council's financial staff could find no significant reference to the debt-retirement strategy.
In January 1994 Latham was elected to the Australian House of Representatives for the Sydney seat of Werriwa, which had been Whitlam's seat 1952–78. He was elected to the Opposition front bench after Labor went into opposition at the 1996 elections, and became shadow Education Minister. After the 1998 elections he resigned from the front bench after a policy dispute with Opposition Leader Kim Beazley. The two became political enemies after this incident, but have since made up their differences.
On the backbench, Latham published Civilising Global Capital: New Thinking for Australian Labor (Allen and Unwin, 1998), in which he argued that Labor needed to abandon many of its traditional policies and embrace the aspirational values (home ownership, higher education) of the upwardly-mobile skilled working class and small business class. These views alienated him from many Labor traditionalists, but his aggressive Parliamentary style won him many admirers. He once referred to Prime Minister John Howard as an "arselicker", and to the Liberal Party front bench as a "conga-line of suckholes".  He also once characterised George W. Bush as "the most incompetent and dangerous President in living memory". 
Latham summed up his approach to politics in a 2002 interview: "I'm a hater. Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness. I hate the way, for instance, John Howard tries to appeal to suburban values when I know that he hasn't got any real answers to the problems and challenges we face. I hate the phoniness of that." 
On 2 December 2003, less than ten years after entering Parliament, Latham won the vote for the leadership by 47 votes to 45. At the age of 42, he became the youngest leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party since its first leader Chris Watson, who became leader in 1901 aged 33.
The government organised quickly to attack Latham, believing that his brash personality and his colourful past made him a broad target. Howard characterised Latham as "Mr Flip-Flop", referring to a character in a children's book. The Treasurer, Peter Costello, attempted to damage Latham's economic credentials by referring to the experimental economic ideas that he had put forward as Shadow Treasurer, such as abolishing negative gearing and replacing the GST with a PET (Progressive Expenditure Tax). Frequent references were made to Latham's temper: he once broke a taxi-driver's arm in a scuffle arising from a fare dispute. This was to damage Latham's image with the public, and he never fully recovered from it.
On winning the leadership, Latham moved swiftly to heal the rifts in the Labor Party and to moderate his abrasive image. He appointed his predecessor, Simon Crean, as Shadow Treasurer, and retained a number of Beazley's supporters in senior positions. In July 2004 Beazley himself was re-elected to the ALP front bench as Shadow Minister for Defence. Latham gave a promise not to use the kind of "crude" language he had employed in the past. He and the party's foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd, met the United States Ambassador, Tom Schieffer, to stress Labor's continuing support for the Australian-American alliance.
In February 2004 the Australian Labor Party national conference was held in Sydney. During the conference Latham received very positive media coverage and introduced his plans for early childhood literacy. He introduced an unusual campaign style, choosing to focus on "values" issues, such as reading to children. He also put forward plans to reform the Australian education and medical systems. In contrast to the intense stagecrafting of Latham's image by the conference, he boosted his profile by means of loosely organised "town hall" style direct meetings around the country. By March, Labor had taken the lead over the Coalition in the opinion polls, and Latham had a higher personal approval rating than any Opposition Leader since Bob Hawke in 1983. Commentators began to discuss the serious possibility that Latham could be Prime Minister by the end of the year.
In March, following the Spanish elections at which the pro-American government was defeated, Latham sparked a new controversy by committing a Labor government to withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas. Australia has about 850 troops in Iraq, mostly involved in patrol work and in training members of the new Iraqi defence forces. Prime Minister Howard accused Latham of a "cut and run" approach and of taking an "un-Australian" position.
Until March 2004 Labor under Latham's leadership held a strong lead in national opinion polls. Latham's commitment to withdraw from Iraq caused a sharp drop in Labor's lead, reflecting continuing support in Australia for the involvement in Iraq. Following the revelations of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison, however, Labor's lead increased again, suggesting that support for involvement in Iraq had declined, undermining Howard's position.
In June 2004, Labor's "troops home by Christmas" policy came under fire from U.S. President George W. Bush who, at a White House press conference during Howard's visit to Washington, described it as "disastrous." Bush's comments raised controversy in Australia over whether Bush was interfering in Australia's domestic political affairs, whether the election of a Latham government would endanger the U.S. alliance, and whether the comments were made with or without Howard's prior knowledge.
Shortly after, Latham announced the recruitment of Peter Garrett, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and former lead singer with the rock band Midnight Oil, as a Labor candidate in a safe Sydney electorate being vacated by the retiring former minister Laurie Brereton. Most commentators regarded this as a high-risk tactic, seeing the potential advantage to Labor of Garrett's popularity among young people as being offset by the possibility that his record of radical and anti-American statements in the past would offend moderate voters.
The second coup scored by Latham was the announcement that he would abolish the generous superannuation schemes available to Members of Parliament; his plan was quickly adopted by the Howard government.
In July Latham again became the centre of controversy when it was alleged on a commercial television network that he had punched a political rival during his time on Liverpool Council. Latham strongly denied the accusation. On 6 July he called a press conference and denounced the government for maintaining what he called a "dirt unit," which he said was gathering personal material about him, including details of his failed first marriage. The government denied that any such unit existed, but some observers speculated that Liberal Party researchers had accumulated more potentially embarrassing material about Latham, which would be used during the election campaign, in addition to claims that Latham was an inexperienced economic manager.
From March to August Latham's position in the opinion polls gradually declined, leading to renewed speculation that Howard would call an election. During August Labor had a tactical victory over the government on the issue of the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, and there were renewed allegations that Howard had lied about the children overboard affair during the 2001 election campaign. By mid-August Labor was again ahead in all three national opinion polls. On 18 August, however, Latham was admitted to a Sydney hospital, where he was diagnosed with pancreatitis.
The elections were held on 9 October. Although opinion polls showed the ALP leading the government at various stages of the six-week campaign, and although Latham was generally credited with a strong performance and a victory in the sole campaign debate, the government was re-elected with an increased majority. In the days after the election Latham was criticised for releasing many key policies too late.
Among those critical of Latham were commentators Tom Allard and Mark Metherell who said that "the flurry of releases meant Mr Latham went 'off message' from Labor's core strengths of health and education." Labor party president Carmen Lawrence blamed the unexpected severity of the defeat on an effective Coalition "scare campaign" focused on Latham's limited economic management experience, and the alleged threat of a rise in interest rates under Labor, which was not effectively countered. Michael Costello, a former chief of staff to Kim Beazley, said: "This is a complete train wreck. We now face at least two terms before we can win government again. We face at least three years with John Howard pretty much in control of the Senate."
Departure from politics
Latham was first Labor Opposition Leader since Frank Tudor in 1917 to fail to make a net gain in seats from the government at his first election. Labor's unexpectedly heavy defeat led to a spate of criticism of his personal style and policy priorities in the media, and also to a crisis in confidence in his leadership within the Labor Caucus. Several prominent members of the front-bench, notably John Faulkner, Lindsay Tanner and Bob McMullan, chose not to recontest front-bench positions. McMullan made it clear he was unhappy with Latham's leadership style and gave an interview suggesting that there would be a leadership challenge early in 2005. The influential national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Bill Shorten , was also highly critical of Latham.
In December, after Latham was (incorrectly) reported to have blamed Labor's state Premiers for defeat, an un-named Labor frontbencher predicted a leadership challenge within the next few months, saying that Latham's supporters had lost confidence in him. Latham also had a heated public confrontation with the Labor Deputy Leader in the Senate, Stephen Conroy, renewing speculation that there would be a challenge to Latham's leadership in the new year.
Latham was helped by the fact that there was no obvious successor to the leadership. The most likely candidates, Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith, both known to see themselves as future leaders, accepted senior positions on Latham's frontbench and pledged loyalty to him. The leaders of the Socialist Left faction, Martin Ferguson and Julia Gillard, also maintained their support for him. There was little support for a return to Kim Beazley, and neither Tanner nor McMullan were seen as viable leadership candidates. In the longer run, however, many commentators doubted that Latham would survive until the 2007 election after such a heavy defeat.
The final crisis for Latham's leadership erupted in the aftermath of the December tsunami. With both Latham and Deputy Leader Jenny Macklin on leave, the position of Acting Opposition Leader was held by Senator Chris Evans , who issued statements in the aftermath of the tsunami. Latham was criticised for not issuing a statement as Leader personally, particularly at a time when John Howard expressed national sympathy over the disaster, pledged a billion dollars in aid to Indonesia and declared a national day of mourning. By contrast, there was nothing but silence from Latham. Macklin had issued some sympathetic statements on the disaster on December 30, but she too left on leave and vanished from the public eye. These statements had little effect on either the Australian public or Latham's image.
Several days later, Latham revealed that he had been ordered to rest as a result of a recurrence of his pancreatitis. He was then hit by allegations that during the period of his illness, he had been seen in a resort holidaying with his family. Latham's colleagues in turn became increasingly angry over his failure to communicate with them or to release a full statement about his health. Opinion polls in January showed a sharp decline in Latham's support, and a preference for the return of Kim Beazley as Labor leader.
On 18 January, citing both his illness – which he described as "life-threatening" – and family concerns, Latham announced his resignation both from the leadership of the Labor Party and from the House of Representatives. He strongly criticised the media for invading his family's privacy during his illness.
Latham was Leader of the Labor Party for 13 months, the shortest leadership of any of the party's federal leaders since Billy Hughes was expelled from the party in 1916. He was only the second federal Labor Leader, after Mathew Charlton in 1928, to leave politics without ever having held ministerial office.
Political journalist Mungo McCallum wrote: "[Latham] became leader too early in his career, he lacked the skills needed to deal with the webs of intrigue within his own party, he refused to massage the media and the advisers he did listen to were out of their depth against Howard's praetorian guard.
"But he had many qualities that were not only desirable and attractive but are in short supply in today's ALP. In other circumstances he could have developed into a formidable leader, even prime minister. As it is, he remains one of the great what-ifs."
- Mark Latham Concession Speech 2004
- Abraham, Matt (July 9, 2004). Howard's toughest interview of the year. Crikey.com.au
- Allard, Tom; & Metherell, Mark (October 11, 2004). Late release of policy cost Latham the Lodge. The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Australian Labor Party (December 2, 2003). Mark Latham's Labor Party Leadership. Transcript of press conference. Retreived September 29, 2004.
- Australian Labor Party (June 10, 2004). Announcement To Run For Kingsford Smith. Transcript of door stop interview. Retrieved September 30, 2004.
- Australian Labor Party (June 18, 2004). Parliamentary superannuation. Media statement. Retrieved September 30, 2004.
- Australian Labor Party (July 12, 2004). Kim Beazley: new Shadow Minister for Defence. Transcript of press conference. Retreived September 29, 2004.
- Australian Labor Party (August 20, 2004). Health Statement. Doorstop interview. Retrieved October 11, 2004.
- Australian Labor Party (December 4, 2004). Australian:American Alliance. Transcript of press conference. Retreived September 29, 2004.
- Australian Labor Party (January 29, 2004). Latham lays out Labor vision. TV Interview with Kerry O'Brien for The 7.30 Report .
- Australian Labor Party (April 1, 2004). Troops in Iraq. TV Interview with Kerry O'Brien for The 7.30 Report.
- Australian Labor Party (July 2, 2004). Radio Interview with John Laws. Retrieved September 30, 2004.
- Australian Labor Party (July 5, 2004). Political Priorities, FTA, Tax Policy, Education, Health. Transcript of press conference. Retrieved September 30, 2004.
- Australian Liberal Party (March 24, 2004). Transcript of doorstop interview of Hon. John Howard, MP at the Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra.
- Australian Liberal Party (March 28, 2004). Transcript of interview of Hon. John Howard (Interviewer: Laurie Oakes for the Sunday programme).
- A fair dinkum Labor hero (December 4, 2003). The Economist.
- Australian Liberal Party (July 6, 2004). Interview with John Miller and Ross Davie Radio. Retrieved September 30, 2004.
- 'Blame Latham for this train wreck' (October 11, 2004). The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Bray, Hillary (May 4, 2004). Peter Garrett and the best of both worlds. Crikey.com.au.
- Farr, Malcolm (January 19, 2005). Ill health ends Latham's career. NEWS.com.au.
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- Latham quits (January 18, 2005). ABC News Online.
- Labor unites behind Latham as conference ends (January 31, 2004). ABC News Online.
- Latham to recontest leadership (October 11, 2004). The Sydney Morning Herald.
- McKew, Maxine (06/26/2002). Lunch: Mark Latham. The Bulletin.
- McGrath, Catherine (August 17, 2004). Latest polls show Labor election win (transcript). ABC's AM radio program.
- McIlveen, Luke & Miller, Lisa (January 12, 2005). Sick-leave Latham seen enjoying coast holiday. Courier-Mail.
- Riley, Mark (February 12, 2003). Bush gushes, PM blushes in war office. The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Simons, Margaret (2004). Latham's world, the new politics of the new outsiders. Quarterly Essay, Issue 15, 1–112.
- Squires, Nick (December 3, 2004). MP who broke taxi driver's arm is new party leader. news.telegraph.co.uk
- Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia (July 20, 2004). Doorstop Interview.
- United States Whitehouse (June 3, 2004). Remarks by the President at a Joint Press Availability with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Joint Press Availability interview.
- Weller, Patrick (August 17, 2004). Truth lies in murky waters. The Australian.
- Wendt, Jana (no date on website!). Latham uncut. Interview for the Sunday television programme. Retrieved September 30, 2004.
- Maxine McKew interview with Mark Latham
- Mark Latham Online (Link from archive.org)
- Latham wins Labor vote
- First part of two part expose of Latham's personal life in Sydney Morning Herald
- Second part of two part expose of Latham's personal life in Sydney Morning Herald
- Crikey.com.au's "The dummies guide to Mark Latham"
- Labor's rebranded leader (BBC)
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