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Ex-Leaders Get Mad, Then Spend the Rest of Their Dumb Careers Getting Even

Abbott, Rudd, and Latham could have all left gracefully. Instead they front an ugly new trend.

by Lee Zachariah
09 October 2017, 3:54am

Image by Ben Thomson

Imagine you're the leader of a party, or even the Prime Minister—it's the job you've been dreaming of your whole life, but then it's gone in the blink of an eye. You're ousted, either by the voters or by your own party. Do you bow out with grace and humility, or burn the motherfucker to the ground?

Australia's recent ex-leaders have covered the entire spectrum. On the more dignified end of the scale you have the likes of John Howard and Paul Keating, ex-leaders who continue to engage in public debate but refrain from publicly criticising their own side. "Julia Gillard is in many ways a role model ex-Prime Minister," says Troy Bramston, senior writer for The Australian and author of the epic biography Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader. "For the most part, she's gone gracefully into the night and has no interest in making life difficult for her former colleagues or trashing her party."

Keating once said that every leader since Robert Menzies has been taken out in a box. "No Prime Minister since Menzies has left office at a time of their own choosing," says Bramston. "So there's always mix of bitterness, disappointment, a feeling of rejection. If you're rejected by voters it's harsh; being rejected by your colleagues is even harsher."

Cue Mark Latham, who was rejected by both.

The former Labor leader who was very nearly Prime Minister—although "nearly" is a stretch if you remember the actual results of the 2004 election—has been on a furious campaign to destroy whatever credibility he may have retained, embracing every fringe opinion and alt-right talking point in his endless quest for unemployment.

Latham, the man who once called Andrew Bolt and Donald Trump examples of the intellectual decline of the "lunar Right," (we're assuming he meant "loony" Right... right?) now appears regularly on Bolt's show to champion the rise of Trump. It's part of his rebranding as an "Outsider." Of course, being the leader of a major political party should translate into being the ultimate "Insider"—but Latham was always bad at that.

The dramatic swing in Latham's politics is atypical. With a parliamentary pension of almost $80,000 per year he certainly doesn't need the work, so it's all about making as big a splash as possible. By losing an election his place in history is tenuous. He's got nothing to lose.

But since the non-era of Latham, we've had two Prime Ministers rumbled by their own parties before they'd even finished their first term. Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott responded by engaging in a war against their own parties, two modern day Coriolanis who seem more driven by revenge than ideology.

When Tony Abbott was ousted by Turnbull two years into his leadership, he famously promised, "No wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping"—knowing full well the memory of Kevin Rudd's undermining boom was fresh in everyone's mind.

But it didn't last.

"It didn't last." Image via Shutterstock

Abbott continued nagging at Turnbull's already fraught government, rarely turning down an opportunity to express disappointment with his own side to the eager media.

It's tempting to assume Abbott is keen to see the Turnbull government go down, even if it results in a Labor government, but Bramston disagrees. "What's that German word? Schadenfreude. For Tony Abbott, there'd be an element of that if Malcolm Turnbull lost the next election," he says. "But it would be wrong to think that Abbott would want Bill Shorten to become PM. I don't think it's fair to put that on him. While it's a remote possibility, he'd like to become PM again."

As with Kevin Rudd, who's in low-key reputation rehabilitation mode with a focus on international diplomacy in the US, Abbott's ultimate standing may be decided by what he does once he leaves parliament. He could make a play for statesmanship. Or he could go full Latham and spend his free time photoshopping Pepe the Frogs onto pictures of the royal family.

Based on his current behaviour, it's difficult to tell which path he'll take. The other day he tweeted a photo of himself looking bespectacled and concerned as he sat opposite a business owner showing him her electricity bills. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "Zoe, the owner of Café Free on Mandolong Road in Mosman, has been hit with a 50% increase in her power bill."

It's unclear who this tweet was aimed at. Was it a dig at the push for renewable energy alternatives, which are currently theoretic and yet to be implemented? Or was it an attack on Julia Gillard's long gone carbon tax?


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Given that Zoe's been living under Coalition rule since 2013 and her power prices are a direct result of the energy policies introduced by Prime Minister Abbott, this confused tweet served only to remind us that Abbott is comfortable in one mode only: opposition leader. He was a blisteringly effective opposition leader against Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and continued to act like an opposition leader when he became Prime Minister. He couldn't shift out of gear. He can't see that being ousted has put him in the perfect position: his party is in power, his policies are still in use, and he is personally opposed to the Prime Minister. If the mist ever clears, he'll realise that bitter backbencher was the role he was born to play.

Yet, Abbott may still prove to be the government's downfall: the Coalition holds government with a delicate one-seat majority, and with Abbott threatening to cross the floor if Turnbull dares legislate a clean energy target, it's not outside the realms of possibility to imagine a change of government before 2019. He'll never fully leave the LNP, however. He must have taken a brief moment to entertain Cory Bernardi's offer to join the Australian Conservatives, but he'll be a Liberal forever.

Not so Mark Latham. Latham couldn't wait to reject the party that had long since forgotten him.

"Mark Latham has left the Labor Party," says Bramston. "He's now a Liberal Democrat. He doesn't have any pride in the Labor tradition. He's turned his back on the party just as he turned his back on many friends and former colleagues. He burns every bridge that he crosses. He's consumed by bitterness and hatred. It's sad."

Mark Latham is now useful only as a cautionary tale. There's no way anyone expecting to re-enter Grown Up Politics would spend their days defending domestic violence, attacking the ABC for eulogising an Aboriginal singer, countering Tony Abbott's sexist objectification with worse sexist objectification, attacking a 15-year-old for her effort to tackle gender imbalance, and really everything else he's done since his defeat in 2004.

It's difficult to tell if all of these incendiary statements reflect—to quote his Twitter handle—the Real Mark Latham, or if he's given up all of his ethics and beliefs in a calculated play for attention. If it's the latter, it's certainly working, at least for the time being. But he'd better hope that the market can bear professional trolls, because it's unlikely he'll be let back in the door of polite society any time soon.

"Look at Kim Beazley and Andrew Peacock," Bramston says, "former opposition leaders who became US ambassadors. Alexander Downer went to London. Bill Hayden became Governor-General. Brendan Nelson is running the Australian War Memorial. John Hewson and Simon Crean are widely respected. There's a life for former leaders where they can enjoy life, still contribute to public debate and perhaps even make money in business. Surely that's got to be more interesting than seeking attention, trashing your party and being controversial all the time."

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