Before Mark Latham was a gout-riddled stack of deli meats whinging about the threat of Islam and feminism, he was opposition leader of Australia. In Labor households like mine, Latham was exciting: he was a no bullshit enforcer who played into nostalgic notions of the old Left and its archetypes. Even his physicality—large, stocky, giant head—echoed the mythic days of Gough Whitlam, and old Labor personalities like Jack Lang. He even wore glasses like John Curtin. To me, then aged 13, Latham ran counter to the boardroom aesthetic of the Howard era. I thought he could beat Howard and, back then, there was nothing I wanted more than for John Howard not to be Prime Minister.
Of course, like Lang before him, Latham's blood ran wild with lunacy. Before to his current "racist vlogger" era, nothing illustrated this better than the infamous handshake between Latham and Howard inside a radio station on October 8, 2004. The eve of the Australian election.
In the clip, Latham seizes Howard's hand, grips it in a vice, and yanks the diminutive PM towards him—looming over Howard like a schoolyard bully. Howard, likewise regressing back to an atavistic state of lunch money shakedown victim, is rattled about like a rag doll.
I've thought about the optics of this moment for more than a decade. There's so much to unpack. It pops up in my writing and my comedy more than I'd care to admit. I'm obsessed with it. It's the perfect distillation of toxic Australian masculinity. It's the bullying of someone I consider one of our greatest bullies. It's a brief window into the mind of Latham, a man who 400 years ago would probably have been hanged for putting a meat cleaver through the miller boy's skull.
This moment is peak "Performative Blokeness." This phrase, which I've just made up, signals the imitation or enactment of the mythic Australian machismo—a minstrel performance of true-blue cobberism. It works on a sliding scale: be it Howard hilariously failing to bowl leg-spin with the lads, Shorten hilariously failing to down a schooner with the lads, Turnbull hilariously failing to talk football with the lads, or Mark Latham going full lad by trying to rip out the standing Prime Minister's arm. That's the peak.
The majesty and mystery of Mark Latham is in his aura of "blokeness." In the heady balance of inauthentic japery and authentic loutishness. Latham now, as he did then, sells himself on artifice. He's the wild colonial boy of the outer suburbs, propped up by nothing more than grit, hard work, and a substantial parliamentary pension.
Back then, it was almost impossible to detect how unbalanced Latham would one day become. In 2004, Latham was tapping into a fury that was very real. He seemed authentic. The Howard Government had driven working families to their knees, had embroiled the nation in costly foreign conflicts, and carried themselves with an arrogant indifference so palpable it could've had a Lynx deodorant named after it ("Lynx: Overboard").
On the campaign trail, Latham didn't have to be much more than an avatar for the stress and anxieties of working families. He simply had to run and let them project their worries onto his massive forehead. Sure, he had a reputation as a short tempered hothead, but how bad could it be?
As the campaign unfolded, it became clear that Latham's bile had long ago backed up, and was spilling over. A story emerged of an incident in 2003 where Latham assaulted a taxi driver. The story went that Latham, returning from Gough Whitlam's 85th birthday shindig, blacked out in the back of a taxi, woke up, and accused driver Bachir Mustapha of taking the long way home.
Mustapha asked an irate Latham to leave the taxi, Latham refused to pay, and as he made off down the road was chased by Mustapha, who grabbed Latham's "satchel" and demanded payment. Latham spear-tackled Mustafa and broke his arm. Mustafa told the press, "I don't bear him any grudge… He looks a family man, a sport man, and he may produce a good government. The only payback I can take is not to vote for Labor. I vote Labor in state, I vote Liberal in federal."
It's easy to think that the Latham handshake had a similar effect on the Australian electorate, but in reality it was just another nail in a coffin already covered in dirt. I've always looked back on it as the moment Latham revealed his psychosis, and spooked the herd back to Howard. But actually it occurred on election eve, pre-social media virality, and was greeted by a press that already hated Latham with unsurprised shrugs. Howard himself said he saw it coming, that Latham had done something similar to him off camera a few weeks earlier. "When I saw him coming out of that studio I thought 'He's going to do the handshake thing again,'" Howard later said in an interview with Sunday Night. "He was bigger than I am and he wanted to create the impression that he was dominating me. Well, it didn't work."
Howard was right. It didn't.
The Latham handshake is so much more now than it was then. It's a GIFable banner ad of AusPol's unending farcicality—of our nation's elevation of unlikeable blowhards. It's a fantastic callback to the age of Tampa, Rove's What The?!, and Wilson "Iron Bar" Tuckey. It conjures the same distant nostalgia as memories of John Howard solemnly condemning turkey slapping on Big Brother.
The handshake remains a convenient watermark of Latham's paranoiac gunked-up mind.
In 2015, he appeared on Channel 7's The Morning Show to spruik his book Latham at Large, and explained the reasoning behind the infamous shake. "Five days earlier, in coming along the line to shake everyone's hand, Howard squeezed my wife's hand so tight, she turned to me and said, 'That little fella crushed my hand.' At a time when we talk about the problem of domestic violence, I didn't fancy the idea of this little bloke crushing my wife's hand to the point where she was almost crying."
He went on: "He's lucky, that's all he got… if it was out on the streets or the pubs of where I live, they would have decked the bastard." The hosts then got Latham to play a game of word association with pictures of Australian pollies. When Howard comes up, Latham says: "Handshake mongrel."
It's performative blokeness gone troppo.
With Latham now flailing as a racist MRA, tapping into the busted wit and virility of online neo-fascists, it's good to remember the handshake and thank our lucky stars he never became Prime Minister. Latham is a sad figure—the human embodiment of a pair of shit-stained cargo shorts "the missus" refuses to wash. He's been permitted to float around the national discourse for the last decade, well after being exposed as a hate-filled dope. He remains, depressingly, unflushable.
To look back at this bizarre moment in Australian history is to wonder who created Mark Latham, the OG handshake mongrel, and where he fits in the grand narrative of Australian duds. I think Jovana, the wife of the cabbie Latham assaulted in 2003 said it best: "God will forgive him."
In that case, pray Saint Peter goes in for a bro-hug, and not a shake.
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