Politically speaking: Former leader of the Australian Labor Party Mark Latham at Burma Lane. Photo: Anu Kumar
Mark Latham is talking books, but not the kind you might expect. At the end of a tour promoting his The Political Bubble: Why Australians Don’t Trust Politics, it might be fair to assume that the conversation would be about his 300-odd pages on how our democracy is broken, and his ideas to fix it.
Latham is indeed talking books, but they are about another passion: food, or more precisely, recipes. When he walked away from politics in the summer of 2005, he declared that he wanted to put his family and health first.
That translated into being the designated cook at home. His wife Janine is a criminal prosecutor, tied to office hours. Not only was he responsible for preparing meals for the family – then two boys who now have a sister – the kind of food was also important.
Latham, who has survived a health scare in 1994 when he had testicular cancer, had a public battle with pancreatitis, a painful and debilitating condition. So when he left politics, a low-fat, healthy diet was important. He bought recipe books, and today has some 300 recipes in his repertoire.
Rockling cooked in tumeric and the crispy duck leg at Burma Lane. Photo: Anu Kumar
He offers that publicly, people probably ‘‘see me as an eater, not a cook’’. (As leader of the Labor Party, his weight was a matter of contention and comment; at a social cricket match, a white T-shirt began a weighty discussion about his man-boobs.)
Latham has revelled in the creative aspects of cooking. ‘‘It’s got nothing to do with politics and it’s a skill that you can develop as a hobby, a recreation,’’ he says. ‘‘Yeah, I love it.’’
He has chosen a new Melbourne restaurant, Burma Lane, in Little Collins Street; he likes to prepare Asian dishes and has never eaten Burmese before. A wall on the two-level room features a striking, mural-style Shepard Fairey image of Aung San Suu Kyi, titled Freedom To Lead.
Shepard Fairey's mural of Aung San SuuKyi. Photo: Anu Kumar
The restaurant promises a contemporary Australian take on Burmese food, designed to share. Latham chooses a crispy duck leg with masala potatoes, herb salad and shallot relish – ‘‘I’m a great duck lover . . . so that jumps out’’ – while I choose slow-cooked lamb in yoghurt, green pea and tomato biryani.
A third dish is suggested by the waiter, and Latham seizes upon the Rangoon Mohinga, rockling cooked in turmeric, chilli, lemongrass broth, noodles, boiled egg and elephant ear stem. ‘‘We’ve got to have something with elephant ear stem in it!’’ he says, and laughs.
He chooses a Coopers Light beer, and when they arrive, he dispenses with the glass on the table, explaining that beer always tastes better out of a bottle. ‘‘So cheers,’’ he says, and we clink our stubbies.
Latham looks and sounds relaxed, a world removed from his public image when in politics. A profile for Fairfax by Louise Dodson before the 2004 election captures him as the feisty Opposition leader ‘‘in your face and in your kitchen’’, reviving Labor’s fortunes ‘‘with policies that have got mums and dads talking around the kitchen table’’.
But there was just too much feisty for many voters, and Australia opted for a fourth term of John Howard. Latham would depart the public stage only three months later.
I’m particularly interested in what happened next. Latham had devoted a lifetime to politics, and, at one point, the prime ministership was in his grasp. It took him, he says, six months to de-stress. The stress, the doctors told him, was connected to his problems with pancreatitis.
‘‘Stress is something that you don’t notice on any given day,’’ he says. ‘‘It does creep up on you incrementally and you really only know the impact of it once you’re out of the stressful environment and you adjust to a better lifestyle.’’
Beyond the health concerns, Latham reached the conclusion that it was impossible to be an effective top politician and an effective parent at the same time.
‘‘I found it too big a strain on my main emotion in life, which was the love of my wife and children,’’ he says. ‘‘While that sounds corny at one level, the practicality of it was that combined with the health issues, my life was going to be a lot better for making an exit, and I did. I don’t regret that for a moment.’’
He says his wife Janine often makes the point about the cliche of the departing politician wanting to spend more time with family. ‘‘Well,’’ she tells him, ‘‘you actually have.’’
Latham’s post-politics life, based around the family home on a couple of hectares near Sydney, also allows him to follow another passion: racehorse owning and breeding.
At 15, he and a mate went to Warwick Farm Racecourse, walking distance from home, on Liverpool City Cup day. They fibbed about their age, put a few bets on, and Latham backed a winner in the first race, Glen Vane, and was hooked. ‘‘I fell in love with it at that point,’’ he says. Never a significant punter, he was captured more by the Australian characters, the culture and the colour of the track. And more recently, the love of the horse.
When he got out of politics, he told Janine that his bucket list would have racehorse owner on it. His wife told him to research it thoroughly, and he has become what’s known as a ‘‘Ped Head’’ – a pedigree expert. Among his horses, he has broodmares in foal to Rebel Raider, a Victoria Derby winner.
Beyond parenting, cooking and horses, Latham has also developed a second career as a writer. He published his first book before he went into politics, and there were more before he became leader, helping define his approach to policy and politics.
The bill, please.
Then there was his explosive memoir The Latham Diaries, sparing no feelings, colleagues nor the ALP. Next year, a collection of his columns for Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review will be published.
The Political Bubble makes the argument that the democratic process is broken, that there has been a collapse of trust and hope in politics. The major political parties have broken the social compact and discredited themselves. People, better educated and more affluent, have moved on to a new world of self-reliance. He talks of voter apathy as the ‘‘cycle of apathocracy’’.
He offers a 10-point plan to reshape politics to match this new reality. He would make voting voluntary, so parties would have to truly win votes.
There would be caps on election spending. Question Time, which has lost its original purpose, would be abolished. He argues for ‘‘light touch’’ government, based on the reality that governments can’t do everything. Major parties should concentrate on doing a limited number of things well.
The book is typically forthright. Latham specialised in the biting turn of phrase, such as his description of the Howard government as a ‘‘conga line of suckholes’’ in their support of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
He says that one of his difficulties was that when he was asked a question, his natural inclination was to answer it, rather than following what they teach politicians in media school: provide the answer you want to provide regardless.
Latham worked for Bob Carr when he was NSW state leader, and explains the ‘‘conga line of suckholes’’ was an adaptation of Carr’s description of National Party MPs as a ‘‘conga line of rustic clowns’’.
His stance incurred the wrath of George Bush and his deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. Latham says they wanted to run Australian domestic politics as well as the war in Iraq. ‘‘They should all be apologising for the folly of what they did,’’ he says.
On Iraq and the war on terror, it was clearly a moment to forget the media training.
‘‘I thought on that issue, where you are literally talking about life and death in a war commitment, if you’re not going to join the debate honestly and frankly in committing the nation to war – because that’s what the debate was about – well, when will you be honest and frank?’’