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Latham under doctor's orders -

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Latham under doctor's orders

Reporter: Heather Ewart

HEATHER EWART: After days of intense speculation about his health and scrutiny of his leadership,
Mark Latham has finally gone public about his future. Late today, the Opposition Leader's office
issued this statement: "The news about my health has not been good. I have been told to rest and
not to work, advice I am trying to follow. Over the past fortnight, I've tried to take a total
break, do a few simple things with my family and make the best recovery possible. Notwithstanding
the obvious difficulties now, on the advice of my doctors and after consultation with my
colleagues, I will continue this approach. I have spent this period with my family, including some
time at Terrigal, where I was mostly confined to our unit." He goes on to express sympathy for the
victims of the Asian tsunami and the South Australian bushfires. The statement concludes: "I have
been told to stay on leave and will not return to work until my leave period ends on January 26."
Well, to elaborate on the statement, a short time ago, I spoke to Mark Latham's friend and
confidante, Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon.

HEATHER EWART: Joel Fitzgibbon, at no point in this statement does Mark Latham state categorically
that he's staying on in the top job. Why not?

JOEL FITZGIBBON (LABOR FRONTBENCHER): Well, I had a long conversation with him today, and I was
very pleased that he'd come to the conclusion that, taking all the advice available to him, that
he'd be fit and well to continue duties on January 26. I think this thing's already been risen
above its importance, and I suppose he didn't want to pour any more fire on the flames. He just
simply wanted to indicate that he had intended or is intending to resume duties on January 26, as
he always planned to do.

HEATHER EWART: So he does want and plan to stay on in the top job?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Oh, he was quite upbeat today. He's recovered substantially, feeling much better,
and he's more than confident, on all the advice available to him, that with a little bit more rest
over the next couple of weeks or so, he'll be more than fit and able to continue duties and show
the same sort of energy we've known him to expend in the past.

HEATHER EWART: But that's the other thing that was lacking in the statement. We have no medical
bulletin on his actual state of health. Now, isn't that what the public and the rest of the party
were led to believe they were going to be getting in the statement?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, Mark's indicated to me that, based on all the advice available, that he
should be able to and will be able to resume duties from Australia Day on.

HEATHER EWART: What is his state of health?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, this is his second event, of course, and he was hopeful and the family was
hopeful that it would be a one-off event. It wasn't, and a second event is always of concern to the
medical practitioners. But after seeking wider advice, he's confident and we're all confident that,
managed properly, there's no reason why he can't make a full recovery and return to work from
January 26 onwards.

HEATHER EWART: Why didn't he make this clear in the very beginning, when he first became aware of
the problem soon after Christmas? Why wasn't there a statement then?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, hindsight is 20/20 vision. I mean, politicians generally don't like to wear
ill health on their shirtsleeve. People use it against you and start to bring into question your
capacity to continue on with the job. He just hoped that he could go on the leave that he'd
planned, recover, no-one would have been the wiser and he would have returned back to work on
January 26, as planned. Unfortunately, the tsunami intervened, a tragic event, and you know, that
started to raise questions about why he hadn't made a statement, and I suppose that's where it got
a little bit messy.

HEATHER EWART: At the very least, would you say there have been some serious errors of judgment
here?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: I think in hindsight, again, that's very, very easy. Jenny Macklin made a
statement soon after the tsunami disaster, and you might recall that it was some time after Boxing
Day when all of us really - until all of us really started to appreciate the gravity of the event.
By then, Jenny had already made her statement, and Mark saw no need to come out with a second
announcement.

HEATHER EWART: But even if you're bed-ridden, with such a major disaster like that, isn't it
possible still to just pick up a phone and dictate a few lines to your office in Canberra and have
a statement issued?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, true, but at the time, I'm sure Mark was conscious of the possibility that,
Jenny having made a statement on behalf of the party, some might see his arrival back from holidays
and out of the sick bed as possibly an opportunity to secure some sort of political gain from what
is a significant human tragedy, and at the time, as I said, Jenny had made the statement on behalf
of the party; she was acting leader; he wanted to express confidence in her, and he saw no need to
do it again.

HEATHER EWART: If he was so sick - and I don't doubt that you say he was very sick - how could he
then be seen at a poolside at a holiday resort?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, Mark had planned a holiday in Terrigal prior to Christmas, and the kids were
keen and excited about going to Terrigal. Unfortunately, they weren't able to go because Mark was
simply too sick; he was still confined to bed. A couple of days after they were due to go on
holidays, he was able to get out of bed. Janine, his wife, sensibly said, "Well, why can't I pack
you in the car, get you off to Terrigal, get the kids out of the house, I can get them to the beach
and around the pool, and you can recuperate in Terrigal", and it was a pretty sensible thing to do.

HEATHER EWART: Many of his colleagues over the past week, and frontbenchers here, are describing
all of this behaviour as bizarre, and the way that all of this has been handled has given them
alarm bells about the errors of judgment they consider that he's made and therefore his capacity to
be a good leader. What's your response to that?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, I concede the media management could have been better handled, but all the
caucus members I speak to, including frontbenchers, have only expressed concern about his
well-being, and today they've been very pleased to learn that he's going to make a full recovery
and he will be back to work in the not-too-distant future.

HEATHER EWART: But the party gives every appearance - I'm sure you would have to accept this, with
all the newspaper headlines and media coverage - of being a party in disarray.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, it's the silly season, Heather, and I suspect that not so much attention
would have been paid to Mark Latham if we'd been in a busier period of the year. But that's been
the case, and that's not been helpful. But Mark's keen to get on with it, and he was elected
unopposed by the caucus only a few months ago, and my view is that he still maintains the
overwhelming majority support of the caucus.

HEATHER EWART: Did he consider this week resigning from his position?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, he did have to consider very thoroughly whether the ailment was going to be
in any way an impediment to him properly executing his duties, and it was appropriate for him to do
so. That's why he took plenty of time, and he's taken that time, he's sought advice wisely, he has
consulted family, and he's convinced that it will not be an impediment, and if he takes his time
with it, he will recover fully and he will come back fit and well.

HEATHER EWART: But is he now, in effect, a lame-duck leader, as some in the party are saying?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, that's not my assessment. I have talked to many caucus colleagues this week,
and as I said, they were really concerned about his well-being, all sorts of rumours going about
about his fate, and I sense a real strength of support in the caucus, and I'm confident that will
continue.

HEATHER EWART: Joel Fitzgibbon, thank you for joining us.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Thanks, Heather.