The Stockholm syndrome, the phenomenon by which the kidnapped grow fond of their captors, is well known. Less so is the retirement syndrome, which seems to affect some notables who, on leaving a high-profile job, become bitter critics of their one-time colleagues and past associations.
There are quite a few Australian former politicians with the symptoms of retirement syndrome. The best-known examples are the former Labor leader Mark Latham and the former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser – both of whom have injected themselves into the election.
These days Latham regards himself as a knockabout bloke trying to make a living away from politics. During his confrontation with Julia Gillard at the Brisbane show on Saturday, Latham declared he was “trying to do a job” and “should be allowed to make a living”. In fact, the former Labor MP for Werriwa is doing quite well, courtesy of the taxpayer, and does not need to work for Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes during the campaign.
The Latham Diaries tell the story. In December 1999, Latham wrote: “I need the parliamentary pension for my financial security.” But once he had obtained lifelong fully indexed superannuation, Latham decided this particular perk should not be available to recently elected Labor and Coalition politicians. As opposition leader, he led the successful attack on the scheme. In February 2004 Latham wrote in his diary he had ended the “rotten rort”.
Latham now lives off this “rotten rort” and supplements this income by writing a column for The Australian Financial Review and freelancing as a guest reporter for Channel Nine. He has temporarily joined the Canberra press gallery, the occupants of which he once described as “grubs”.
The evidence suggests Latham is the recipient of privileges beyond his taxpayer-funded superannuation package. Latham’s intimidatory berating of Gillard in Brisbane would never have been tolerated by the police if he had been a mere member of the public. First, there was the aggressive handshake. More seriously, there was the repeated finger pointing in the vicinity of the Prime Minister’s face. This from a big person who has a record of physical clashes with a taxi driver and a cameraman.
Latham’s anger, which stemmed from a paranoid belief Gillard and Labor had complained to Channel Nine about his 60 Minutes appointment, may have been counterproductive in that it could increase sympathy for his target. But the intention was clear. Latham, a product of the NSW Labor Right, has now turned on virtually all his former political friends – from Gough Whitlam to Gillard.
Then there is Malcolm Fraser. Interviewed by Fran Kelly on Radio National on Friday, he replied “no” when asked whether the Coalition was ready for government. This comment created considerable media interest. Yet it was not really news at all. In fact, Kelly asked virtually the same question before the 2007 election and received much the same answer.
In Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, which is co-authored by Fraser and Margaret Simons, it is recorded that “Fraser refuses to say how he voted in [the] 2001, 2004 and 2007 federal elections”. The message is clear. These days Fraser prefers Labor governments. It is made clear Fraser “said many times that the Howard government did not deserve to be re-elected”. In other words, Fraser’s position with reference to Tony Abbott is identical to his attitude to John Howard.
I have done a detailed critique of Fraser’s memoirs in the coming issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly. The book is littered with errors of commission and omission. Some of the historical howlers are just that. But others seemed designed to present Fraser as how he wants to be regarded today – a small “l” liberal in the tradition of Robert Menzies.
There are two problems with Fraser’s self-image. First, he was a small “l” liberal on some issues – such as apartheid, refugees and indigenous affairs. But he was a hard-line conservative on foreign policy and national security matters when prime minister.
Fraser even put about 2000 armed members of the Australian Defence Force on the route between Sydney and Bowral following the Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney in 1978, enlisted to protect visiting heads of government attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. No other Australian leader has so deployed the ADF during peacetime.
Second, Menzies was no small “l” liberal himself on foreign policy and national security issues. His memoirs tell us much about how he regards himself but little about Australian politics or the history of the Liberal Party.
Fraser’s comments attacking Howard, Abbott and the contemporary Liberal Party are no more inherently newsworthy than Latham’s continuing diatribes against Kevin Rudd, Gillard and modern Labor.
Latham and Fraser are both big names. And both have time to devote to keeping themselves in the news on account of the fact they are in receipt of taxpayer-financed allowances, made possible by once having led their respective parties.
The media do themselves no credit when they encourage the personally embittered to castigate the parties they once led. Manifestations of retirement syndrome are not a pretty look.