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Shadow Minister discusses speculation about health and future of Opposition Leader, Mark Latham.

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Thursday, 13 January 2005



ELEANOR HALL: Federal Labor leader, Mark Latham, is a man under siege with a media contingent camped outside his western Sydney home while some of his Labor Party critics whisper that he will not be leader for much longer. Tomorrow Mr Latham is expected to make a statement about his health after he was told by doctors that he’s suffering from severe pancreatitis and will require ongoing medical attention. But while he’s not even talking to his closest politically allies, supporters are maintaining that Mr Latham will continue as leader. Critics, though, say he’s a dead man walking and that his recent political judgments have sealed his fate.


Yesterday former leader, Kim Beazley, ruled out challenging for the leadership again but wouldn’t speculate on whether he could be drafted, and now Labor frontbencher, Julia Gillard—a Latham loyalist but also a possible successor—has cut short her holiday in Vietnam and is returning to Australia.


We’re joined now in Canberra by our chief political correspondent, Catherine McGrath. Catherine, what’s the speculation about what Mark Latham will say at this press conference tomorrow?


CATHERINE McGRATH: Labor MPs are waiting to hear for themselves. Now, he did contact Joel Fitzgibbon, his closest political ally, during Tuesday but he hasn’t spoken to him since. Now, we expect he is speaking to Laurie Brereton who was very instrumental in getting Mark Latham into that position, but otherwise he’s really not talking to his colleagues. He’s speaking to his family and making a decision.


So the belief is that Mark Latham hasn’t reached a decision yet on what he’s going to do, because his medical condition is so severe that he has to decide a) how he’s going to manage it and b) whether he can continue in the job. So in terms of the Labor Party, they’re waiting to see. They don’t know what he’s going to say. His supporters are saying that they expect and hope that he will continue.


ELEANOR HALL: And how significant is it that Julia Gillard is returning early from overseas?


CATHERINE McGRATH: It’s significant in the fact that at the moment, with so much happening and so much riding on Mark Latham’s announcement, MPs don’t want to be out of the country, and particularly someone like Julia Gillard. She is a Latham loyalist, as you mentioned. She’s been one of his key backers and even though she didn’t get her preferred job as Shadow Treasurer, she’s very much in the Latham camp.


But if Latham decides himself not to continue, or if his supporters for some reason decide that he shouldn’t, then they’re likely to put their support behind someone like Julia Gillard, so she needs to be in Australia when this is going on. She needs to be here for his announcement. She can’t afford to be out of the country.


ELEANOR HALL: And, Catherine, what do we know about Mr Latham’s medical condition?


CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, it is very serious, and I’ve had that confirmed from a number of sources over the last few days. He will need ongoing monitoring and that could mean that from time to time he’s going to need treatment and possibly extended treatment. Pancreatitis can be a one-off event. For him, that is not the case. It’s moved now into the chronic phase and that could severely limit his health over time, so not just the way he could perform his job but it may severely impact on his quality of life.


Now, if this condition isn’t managed what could happen, for example, is that he could have chronic pain for the rest of his life.


ELEANOR HALL: You’ve been speaking to a number of Labor MPs. What are they prepared to say publicly?


CATHERINE McGRATH: Not very much, not very much at all. They’re waiting to see. As I said, his supporters are hoping and very much saying on the record that they expect him to come back, but of course their future is tied up with Mark Latham’s future and if he steps down then for all of them that means a backward step for their own career, so they’ve very much hoping that he stays on. But even they are admitting he’s made political mistakes and that makes him staying on a very difficult proposition.


Now, for those who are Mark Latham critics, they’re either openly criticising him more and more as time goes on, or they’re waiting to see. But some responses are not always as expected. For example, Duncan Kerr didn’t vote for him in the leadership ballo t but says that he should be at the moment left alone to recover. This is part of what Duncan Kerr said to me when I spoke to him earlier.


DUNCAN KERR: I think there’s a growing sense that Mark deserves a fair go when he is recovering from illness, and certainly I think that if his health is fully restored and that’s what he tell us on Friday, then all the discussion of the last couple of weeks will be put very much into perspective. We will move on and the judgment of his future and that of the Labor Party and his colleagues will be around the issues of how well we perform as we move through the next term of government and how we take the fight up to John Howard and the Liberal Party.


CATHERINE McGRATH: So how do you rate any of this analysis over the last couple of weeks that has said that politically he has failed over the last few weeks by being quiet, by not speaking out, or being perhaps less than honest about his illness?


DUNCAN KERR: I think truthfully this is a silly season story. I actually feel sorry for Mark. I didn’t support him in the leadership challenge when it occurred, but you have to feel sorry for a bloke who went through a period where nothing he could do was seen by the media as a fault, but of course after the defeat in the election everybody’s been in there to put the boot in.


I think if you’re ill over Christmas and you’ve handed over responsibility to the Deputy Leader, you’re under doctor’s orders not to speak or to take part in public affairs, truthfully it’s pretty hard to see any blame that can be attached in those circumstances. And the party itself expressed grave regret for the loss of human lives in the tsunami. I mean, truthfully, any Australian who hasn’t been deeply moved by this would have a heart of stone. I think, though, it’s just one of those things that Mark has been caught up in a period where there isn’t much to talk about and he, unfortunately, has been the thing that people have talked about.


CATHERINE McGRATH: So you don’t really think then, from what you’re saying, that there was any need for him to make his own statement because acting leaders were making statements?


DUNCAN KERR: Look I’m sure, given the way that this has been reported, Mark and his advisers would, in retrospect, say it would have been wise to at least put out a short statement explaining why he wouldn’t be available publicly. But, as I say, if his medical reports are that he’s fully fit and he’s continuing as leader, then the judgments about those issues will be quickly swept into the past. People don’t make perfect judgments all the time, the more so if they’re struck down by a serious illness—and I know how painful this is because I had a friend who was in hospital for three months with it. So I’m not certain that you should be making the hardest of calls on political judgments when somebody is suffering from an excruciatingly painful illness.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Some of your colleagues, those who fall into the anti-Latham camp, are saying privately that he’s a spent force politically. You don’t subscribe to that?


DUNCAN KERR: People will continue to make evolving judgments about the strength or weaknesses of political leaders, but I don’t think that while a person is suffering an illness his colleagues should be doing other than wishing him a full recovery. I didn’t support Mark in the last leadership challenge but I think he’s entitled to a  fair go, particularly at a time when his health is obviously of concern to him and his family. I only wish him a full recovery, and of course judgments in politics continue to be made on an ongoing basis, but surely all we could do is to hope that they’re not made on the basis that he’s a sick man.


ELEANOR HALL: Tasmanian MP, Duncan Kerr, speaking to Catherine McGrath.