“If You Don’t Like It, You Can Fuck Off”: A Reluctant Recap Of Mark Latham’s Melbourne Writers Festival Talk

You missed quite the show.

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It seems entirely appropriate that the seats at the Deakin Edge building in Melbourne’s Federation Square all slant down above the stage. As opposed to a grand musical or theatrical performance where the audience gaze up in awe, those in the crowd at the Melbourne Writers Festival yesterday loomed over former Labor leader Mark Latham and ABC journalist Jonathan Green. Over the full hour of rage and confusion, we were transformed from spectators at a Roman fighting pit, to a diligent jury, to idle onlookers packed in the gallery above an operating theatre. At the times in which the latter felt true, we were invariably looking down at Mark Latham’s career lying dead on the table.

After a week of controversy surrounding his alleged anonymous abuse of women online and subsequent resignation as a columnist for the Australian Financial Review, this first public appearance was always going to be eventful. However, scheduling the event far in advance of all this, Melbourne Writers Festival appeared to get a little caught in the crossfire. Though the program acknowledged him as “the always bold Mark Latham”, the considered discussion of the divide between politicians and journalists the event advertised never really stood a chance.

Five minutes late to the start of the talk, the first words I hear are “heteronormative penis”. Not merely a withering (albeit confused) aside mumbled under his breath, the phrase is projected at a yell — Latham’s voice booming unapologetically over the loudspeakers as I awkwardly find a seat.

According to reports already flooding in online, Green had flatly asked him about his connection to @RealMarkLatham and it swiftly took off from there. Calling the respected journalist a “deviant” and an “ABC wanker”, Latham refused to give a straight answer to the question and instead suggested he was seeking “commercial opportunities” in which to share his story.

How we got from there to him screaming “heteronormative penis” was essentially a criticism of what he perceived as an inherent bias against the opinions of straight, white men in the media. I know this because he used the phrase more than once within the hour.

With this anger maintained throughout, Latham essentially filibustered the session to share his vision of the country at large. This is a society where everyday people are unfairly called bigots for booing Adam Goodes, and privileged inner-city elites cry foul about anxiety and misogyny — the same vision he regularly puts forward in his written opinion. What he sees as most ridiculous of all is the criticism directed towards himself: the humble bloke simply calling it as it is. Explicitly invoking the idea of class warfare, he lambasted his critics as “rich girls” and plainly offered the fact that he can’t be a misogynist because he loves his mother, wife and daughter. If feminism is all about equality, he said, then he should be well within his rights to publicly denounce Leigh Sales, Mia Freedman, Lisa Wilkinson and Annabel Crabb.

Despite not making any reference to the controversial Twitter account, he listed those figures in almost the exact same way as BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano did in his original report.

Throughout all this, Latham had plenty of opportunity to rein it back in. Before giving up halfway through and turning his body towards the audience, Jonathan Green questioned the former politician’s erratic behaviour and pleaded with him to cooperate in a sensible debate. Despite a few solid rows of press at the back, the majority of the room was comprised of people over 60 years old, presumably all of whom had each paid $22 to be there. An elderly woman stuttered into a microphone attempting to ask an earnest question as Latham steamrolled over her.

With this going on unchallenged, some chose to walk out and others began to vocally protest. Sitting towards the front, 73-year-old Australian actor (and his publisher’s husband) Max Gillies tried to reason with him, stating he was better than this whole display would suggest.

In direct response to this, Latham told him to “get [his] lard ass off the seat and go”, before casting his eyes over the crowd and surveying the number of those who had in fact already gone.

Despite gleefully laughing at the chaos unfolding and physically flinching at each unnecessary profanity, an older man sitting next to me endeavoured to ask a question soon after this. And, against all odds, Latham took the time to answer it. Appearing almost annoyed to be talking about topics within his actual purview, he spoke about the interesting effects of localism on politics and the privileged position that leads to men such as Tony Abbott ascending into power. Then, when solicited, he outlined some recommendations for his former party going forward.

To his credit, he soon expounded on this with specific mention to concrete programs to support indigenous communities and the need for more attention to be given to domestic violence in regional areas. But this is just the problem: anything of potential worth was destined to be lost in the noise. Between his never-ending stream of book deals, his deliberately incendiary columns, and this latest media circus, it’s clear that Latham relishes being the outsider — the middle-aged, boat shoe-wearing bad boy of Australian political debate.

And through all this, he’s really banking on the fact that some people will enjoy it; that his supposed working-class, suburban devotees will relish the fact that he waltzed in on a bunch of latte-sipping, inner-city types and took a shit all over their party. Between trashing the ABC host, unnecessarily talking about himself and some mates messing around at the pub, and being keen to finish things up to head to the footy, the angle was pretty clear.

What’s ironic about it all, this self-appointed crusade to fight for the rights of everyday, hard-working folk, is that at no point did he consider the possibility they may deserve a better champion than himself.

If you’d like some of this first hand, Jonathan Green played a selection of clips from the session on Sunday Extra this morning on ABC Radio National.

Feature image via the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Feverishly live-tweeting apparently isn’t very conducive to decent photography. Sorry.