Although you might not guess it from media comment, The Latham Diaries (MUP, $39.95 hb, 429 pp, 0522852157) is the most important book yet published on Labor’s wilderness years. It provides a pungent characterisation of Labor’s post-1996 history; conveys a profound understanding of the challenges facing a social democratic party in contemporary Australia; and its damning account of Labor’s feuds, machinations, and toxic culture suggests why the party is incapable of meeting those challenges. It is also the most rancorous and at times rancid memoir ever penned by an Australian politician. For someone so sensitive to invasions of his own privacy, Latham throws around personal slurs and innuendoes with much abandon. Yet his effective use of a larrikin argot lends the book a gritty authenticity rare in such writing. Much black humour and some telling stories move the book along with a compelling pace until it is finally overwhelmed by self-pity, blustering defiance, and denial.
The diaries are not a set of regular daily entries but rather occasional jottings that appear to have undergone a degree of stylistic polishing. Sporadic in the early years, by 1998 they average about one a week. Although the entries are supposedly uncut, it is unclear whether any have been omitted. Some report the events of a single day; others cover a week or more. There are also hints throughout the diary of a greater degree of retrospectivity.