Mark Latham, a man rejected, scorns a love he lost

JOHN from Ferntree Gully thought he had the answer to the Mark Latham phenomenon.
John had a friend who developed chronic pancreatitis as a side-effect of mumps. For six years, his friend “was ill beyond all previous experience”. In that time he also blew up every relationship he had: “He alienated all his friends, both business and personal.”
Four years later, torn by regret, the friend rang all those people and apologised for what he had done.
John told ABC radio host Jon Faine yesterday, “Not to put too (fine) a point on it, I think Mark Latham is in a similar situation. I think he’s quite ill.”
“We shall ask him,” promised Faine, who was about to interview the bovver-booted angry man of Australian politics. But Mark Latham exhibited the same granite intransigence that had carried him through his interview with ABC TV’s Andrew Denton. He refused to be drawn on the question of any relationship between his health and the highly publicised bile of The Latham Diaries, his account of his crash and burn as Labor leader in the wake of the last federal election.
“Are you paranoid?” Faine asked him, in a pleasant tone that almost took the bite out of it.
“No, not at all,” Latham said matter-of-factly, as if he is asked this every day (which he probably has been of late).
“Are you depressed?” Faine pressed.
Here, curiously, the answer was not a direct “No”. In fact, Mark Latham passed right over the opportunity to wave a banner for the serene state of his own mental wellbeing or, at the very least, to fend off claims of wounded narcissism. Instead, he grabbed the chance for another free kick against his old rival Kim Beazley, repeating his claim that “Mr Decency” had failed to telephone suicidal MP Greg Wilton and offer him support when he needed it most.
Feminists used to say that the personal is political. For Mark Latham the political is still very, very personal. All through yesterday’s interview, his voice was calm and measured but his comments scathing. He spoke with the bitterness of a lover who has been discarded and defamed, but in his case the love was a cause – the Labor politics to which he had given his adult life.
Like Dickens’ Miss Havasham, sitting broken-hearted beside her cobwebbed wedding cake, Latham warned the young not to delude themselves into following the path that gave him so much heartache. “A young intelligent person who cares about the community and has a young family – I’d advise them not to go into politics. I’d advise them don’t set yourself up for media voyeurism, be aware of the impact this has on family.
“You can learn something out of my failed political career to that extent . . . Do things outside the cesspit of Australian politics.”
He was an angry man with a flamethrower. Journalists? Sensationalistic, intrusive voyeurs. Faine protested that, at the time he was campaigning as leader, Latham had actually played on his novelty value to score media exposure. Latham responded by talking over him.
The Labor Party? The Liberal Party? Both tarred with the same brush, he said, full of “voyeurs and sickos” who enjoy spreading sexual innuendo about political opponents. “There’s a sickness right across the political spectrum . . . There are no standards, no boundaries, no rules, no ethics. It’s whatever it takes to get power and hang on to it.”
The man who has called a pox on both their houses is a long way from any remorseful phone call.

First published in The Age.

Children and trauma: chocolates, hugs and tears


The principal of Winchelsea Primary School mothered a whole town as it tried to cope with the drowning of three boys in a local dam.

JUDI Fallon still remembers too vividly the funeral of a small child that she once attended. “He was a two-year-old. His father walked down the aisle of the church, carrying this little white box. I will never forget it, even though it would have to have been 30 years ago.”
So she knew how to respond when it was suggested that the children at Winchelsea Primary School act as a guard of honour for the coffins of the three Farquharson boys. “I said, ‘We can’t do that, because I can’t expose little tackers to being near little white coffins.’ You’ve got to be thinking of those sorts of things. So we put the coffins into the hearses; the children were lined up in front of the hearses and the hearses drove through. There was a distance between the cars and the children, and the children knew what was in the coffins but it was the hearses they saw.”
Children and death are a grievous mix, a mix that Fallon, the principal of Winchelsea Primary School, has learned far too much about it in the past two weeks. Two of her pupils, brothers Jai Farquharson, 9, and Tyler, 7, died along with their two-year-old brother, Bailey, on Father’s Day when the car their father was driving veered off the road and into a dam. Their father, Robert, escaped but all three boys drowned in the car.
Fallon geared up for emergency measures from the moment she got the call from a parent telling her of the tragedy at 11.10 that Sunday night. Winchelsea is a small town of only 1200 people and 190 of those are children at Fallon’s school. In a rural community, she says, “the school is the town and the town is the school”. The children are also closer to each other than city children; those of the same age have often gone to the same kindergarten and been with the same classmates every year at school.
Fallon is a small, determined and practical woman. She talks quickly in this interview, the story pouring out of her. It is hard to know whether the speedy delivery is her normal mode or the result of the enormous tension she has been under for the past fortnight. She is clearly a warm and open woman; during this interview a small child knocks at her closed door to show her a painting he did in art class. Later, in the playground, a little girl runs over to show Fallon the new Band-Aid on her finger. Both are utterly confident of their welcome.
Fallon has been at the school for only 41/2 years but has embedded herself deeply into the local community, her networks extending to all kinds of groups, from the Lions Club to the local police. She knew the shock and grief would be enormous.
She also knew that there were few protocols to guide her; in the next two weeks, she would rely almost entirely on her instincts. She undertook many roles: informal counsellor, funeral planner, media liaison officer. Fallon became the woman who mothered a small town through its loss.
That first night, she telephoned an Education Department manager and told him she would need grief counsellors at her school first-thing in the morning. She did not ring her staff: “They needed a good night’s sleep.” She lay awake all night, thinking of all the people who might be hit by repercussions: teachers, parents, bus drivers, lollipop ladies. Then she got up at 5.30am to face the hardest day of her working life.
At 6.30am she began phoning her 15 teachers to tell each of them personally; over and over she recited the news. When the staff arrived at 8am the grief counsellors were waiting for them. Fallon told the weeping teachers about trauma and handed them pamphlets of symptoms that they or the children might suffer. Shock is not just an emotion; it has a physical effect on the body. Fallon sent her secretary up the road to buy chocolates and jellybeans for staff and students. “When shock hits, you get chemicals in your system and sugar is an excellent way of coping with them. Sweet drinks, sweet food.” She laughs bleakly. “We absolutely bought out their confectionery department, I think.”
Fallon herself was having trouble believing the news: “It’s like, ‘This can’t be happening!’ It took me a long while to accept that there were three little boys lost. I mean, I’m a mother. I can’t imagine imagine losing one of my children, let alone having your whole family wiped out. You ask yourself why. You ask yourself how. But I just go into what I call work mode. You’ve got a job to do. And if you fall apart, who’s going to lead?”
She had students bring the school flag down to half-mast. Then she took the morning assembly in front of 190 children and more than 50 adults. She explained that she had sad news and told them the facts as briefly as possible. She told parents that counsellors were available for them and for the children. “The counsellors were fantastic,” she says. “The children were allowed to come in and out of the library whenever they chose. Everyone was told that they were allowed to do a drawing or a picture or a story. The thing is to get children’s emotions out. Children actually cope better than adults. Adults don’t want to talk about it, but children ask the hard questions.
“We got the community policing squad in first-thing Monday and we sat the grade five and six kids (Jai’s class) down to explain how an investigation might go, hypothetically. Because the kids were asking, ‘Why did the car go down? How long did it take the car to go down? How long would it have taken before the boys died?’ They ask those horrible hard questions, and that’s what you’ve got to give them the answers to.”
Younger children were also imagining the children’s deaths but were satisfied with much simpler responses, often the ones they made up for themselves. Fallon spent a lot of the week on yard duty to keep the media at bay, for fear a distraught child would be further traumatised by being photographed. “I was down in the sandpit with the little ones and one of them said to me, ‘I know, Mrs Fallon, how Tyler died. He didn’t have his seatbelt on.’
“And I said ‘Oh, I think he might have had his seatbelt on. He probably released it to try and get out.’ But ‘Oh no, if you don’t have your seatbelt on you die.’ To him, that was the explanation.
“And another one asked me, ‘Do you think he would have drunk much water?’ And I said, ‘Let’s hope he kept his mouth closed.’ And the child said, ‘Oh yeah, that would have been sensible.’ To her, that was fine. To me, it was . . .” And she makes a strangled sound, as if no word can express the ghastliness. “They think those things. They have visions in their heads. Once we told them it was normal to have visions like that, normal to ask questions, normal to have trouble going to sleep or bad dreams, they got through that and moved on.”
It was suggested that the school should suspend specialist programs such as religious education. Fallon resisted. “I wanted to get the school quickly back to routine. That was just gut instinct too.” She peals with laughter: “It works for me! It also does work for children when they’re upset.”
As well as hovering over her students and staff – Fallon was particularly worried about Tyler’s teacher, a caring woman who had taught him in both prep and grade one, and Jai’s friends, who were old enough to understand the finality of death – Fallon phoned the grieving family every day.
“Mum was still in hospital (sedated for shock) and Dad was an absolute wreck. It took a few days to work out what their wishes were, how they wanted to do things. They were at a loss. And the coroner hadn’t released the bodies, we had to work our way through that. And then a couple of days later Robbie (Farquharson) was taken in for questioning; I had to deal with the homicide squad as well.”
Questions remain about the accident, which left no skidmarks on the road. The car was found with its lights and engine turned off. “My aim was to make sure that everyone was aware that the two parents were supporting each other,” she says firmly. “And the kids need to feel that too . . . This sort of thing can bring a town together. It can also destroy a town. At the moment, here, it’s brought them together.”
There was a torrent of communication in the wake of the tragedy. Fallon received more than 200 emails of support from other principals, and established a sympathetic correspondence with the principal of the Balwyn school that lost two boys to a stabbing just days after the Winchelsea tragedy, and to the Sunshine special school principal who lost a student in a house fire. She phoned her staff every night to see how they were travelling (“Because it’s when you get home that you reflect”).
And she fielded 50 or 60 media calls a day. “There must be a newspaper somewhere or a small radio station up in Upper Quambatook or wherever that hasn’t rung me, but I guarantee everyone else has. And that was something I hadn’t planned for at all.”
Fallon had been asked by two older members of the community to handle the media, a task she took on “to protect Cindy in hospital and Robbie at home . . . So I’ve learned a little bit about the media now. They’re doing their job, that’s all they’re doing. If you give them the little grabs that they need they are happy, and that keeps them off your back and everyone else’s.”
Fallon seems to have a native shrewdness that stood her in good stead in this regard. The grandfatherly man who edits the local paper was given hot tea and warm advice when he came around after the funeral almost too upset to write his report of it.
But when a bigwig from Channel Seven rang, Fallon bartered with him: she would give him an interview if he would put in a request for her to Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy. He agreed, and Essendon footballers – the Farquharson boys’ team – will come to the school next term to help with its memorial garden and to speak to the children on how to handle adversity.
And how does Fallon get through adversity? She schedules. She held her own grief at bay until Thursday morning, the day after the Farquharson boys’ funeral; she cried for the first time when her staff gave her flowers and a card to thank her for her strength and support. But then she rallied again and is holding off until this weekend, the start of the school holidays.
“I’m not quite sure when it will, but it will hit,” she admits. “It’s like you will stub your toe and all of a sudden the world will end and you will think, ‘But this was just a stubbed toe!’
“And it will have nothing to do with the stubbed toe, just with what you have bottled up and not let go. But I have a gorgeous family and two wonderful daughters, and they will look after me.”
· Born in Melbourne
· Degree in marketing, Monash Caulfield, followed by career in advertising/marketing
1975 and 1979
· Birth of daughters
· Returns to university to train as a teacher
· First teaching job, at Traralgon Primary School
· First principal’s job, at Hamilton Primary School
· Principal of Winchelsea Primary School

First published in The Age.

Babes in the woods

Australia has never been so rich, yet there are serious doubts about whether our children are reaping the benefits. Karen Kissane reports on whether the needs of children are compatible with the demands of modern life.
WHEN Anne Manne’s last child started school, Manne brushed off her CV and rang old university colleagues to inquire about paid work. One asked what she had been doing all this time. She told him she had been looking after children. There was an appalled silence.
“I’ve often wondered what happened to you,” he said wanly. “But I thought . . . you know . . . New York, London . . .”
Retelling the story in her new book, Manne, who had tutored in history and politics before she became a mother, writes: “I knew what he meant. A brilliant career. But here I was, down among the children. He sounded terribly disappointed, more embarrassed for me than if I had told him I had been imprisoned for embezzling university funds . . . How hard it is to explain; it is as if one steps back across a threshold into a different world with different values, a different universe. Everything that is a priority in the other, parallel universe is reversed, turned upside down. The centre of life in one world – children – is invisible to the other. There is no shared language.”
Manne’s is one of two new books to suggest that Australia’s children are falling into the gaps between those two worlds; that the next generation is at risk of being failed in a wholesale way by new-economy obsessions with long working hours, the financial bottom line and a self-absorbed individualism that is cruelly undermining the less visible sphere of the family.
While Australia has never been so rich, according to many yardsticks the health and well-being of its children is not improving in line with this increased prosperity. It is actually getting worse.
A barrage of statistics backing this claim can be found in Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian Society has turned its back on children and why children matter, which is co-authored by Fiona Stanley, former Australian of the Year and professor of child health at the University of Western Australia.
Anne Manne’s book, Motherhood: How should we care for our children? relates more to the needs of the early childhood years and, in particular, research findings about the potential emotional damage to babies and toddlers who spend long hours in day care.
Manne writes ardently of the grief felt by mothers and babies who are separated from each other too soon and calls for a new “maternal feminism” to fight for the rights of mothers to both work and care for children in the way they feel is best. “It is not just the ‘social construction’ of motherhood that makes us feel guilty. It is the expression on the face of a child,” she writes.
The increasing problems of Australian children begin before birth. The rate of “low-birth-weight babies” – those whose small size or prematurity makes them more vulnerable to conditions such as cerebral palsy and intellectual disability – is rising, not falling. Stanley says this is due to factors including mothers’ smoking, drinking or drug use, sexually transmitted diseases and the multiple births associated with IVF.
Autism is also on the rise, for reasons which cannot be determined. Asthma now affects 30 per cent of Australian children compared with about 10 per cent in the 1970s.
Obesity and type-2 diabetes in children rose by nearly 30 per cent between 1990 and 2000. This is predicted to lead to increased incidences of adult heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure and stroke, and it has been suggested that this generation of Australian children will be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.
Anxiety and depression are more widespread among teenagers than they used to be; according to Stanley’s book, suicide rates for males aged 15-24 have increased four-fold and female rates have doubled since the 1960s. One national survey found that over 15 per cent of children and teenagers had a psychological problem that significantly interfered with their daily lives, and in disadvantaged groups the rate was as high as 40 per cent.
“People who live in good areas with nice facilities and children who are OK have no idea that (this picture) is true because they can successfully avoid evidence of it,” Stanley says. “Everyone says I’m gloomy but I’m not; I’m facing reality.”
Stanley argues that the nurturing aspect of society, its willingness to provide the services that are the community’s mortar, has been pushed aside in the personal rush towards money and success and the governmental push for a lean, mean economy. Parents are not valued enough, and nor are the educators and health professionals who try to help troubled families with abusive fathers or drug-addicted mothers.
Fixing these complex, deep-seated public health problems, Stanley says, will be “a damn sight harder” than targeting the scourges of childhood past, the infectious diseases such as polio and gastroenteritis. They could be fixed with sanitation and vaccination.
“There’s a significant amount of infrastructure missing in many families and many neighbourhoods. Map the learning disabilities and school problems and Melbourne suburbs, and then map the kinds of things needed to help them: how far do you need to go to a speech pathologist, how easy is it to see a GP for a child’s ear infection, do you have a good preschool and green space to play? Over the last 30 years we have dismantled many of these things, such as the maternal and child health clinic sisters who were the backbone of young families.”
Governments of earlier eras saw preventive support for mothers as crucial, but “economic rationalists of the 1980s and 1990s have pushed a lot of those things to one side because they don’t understand the relationship between healthy children and parents and a healthy workforce and society”.
Now, Stanley says, a child is often left to suffer disadvantage until he or she exhibits learning or behavioural problems at school, by which time the damage can be too deep-seated to repair. “Is the only answer to wait until they become little criminals and then lock them away?”
Manne, too, sees children as “the canaries in the mine of the new economy”. “Why do we have so many kids with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), so many teenagers with depression?”
Manne writes luminously of the tenderness of early motherhood, of the importance of the little glances and touches that reassure a small child that the world is a safe place and which help the child regulate his own feelings. She writes: “What must be understood here is that child care for a baby intrudes into the midst of an intense love affair . . . There is both force and delicacy in what babies and young children feel. Their emotions are complex and deep before language. Part of my Toddlers’ Bill of Rights would include the possibility of climbing into the lap of someone who truly, deeply loves them, whenever they wish.”
Manne says that most child developmentalists agree that child care from the age of three can be a benefit, particularly in terms of a child’s intellectual abilities. But there is evidence that long day care under the age of two can be harmful: one recent US study found that 70 per cent of toddlers in “medium to excellent” day care centres had raised levels of cortisol, a hormone related to anxiety. High levels of cortisol at a time when the pathways in the brain are still being built might lead to long-term difficulties in regulating one’s emotions.
As hours of child care grew, so did the problems. One study found that at age four and a half, three times as many children (17 per cent) in more than 30 hours of care showed more aggressive behavioural problems than children in care for less than 10 hours (6 per cent). The long day care children were more disobedient and bullying, with more explosive tempers.
Manne also looks at the consequences for mothers at home who are not supported and whose distress might lead to depression and child abuse, examining the case of Sydney woman Kathleen Folbigg, an abused and neglected child who grew up to murder her own four babies. Manne asks: “Who cares for the carers?”
Manne believes that, for the sake of children, the world of work needs to be much more accommodating of the world of caring. She believes that the fertility crisis hands working women a bargaining chip in the battle for better parental conditions, and she backs the ACTU’s bid for two years’ leave after the birth of a child. And, she asks, what about the 120 days of parental sick leave offered in some Scandinavian countries? And the option of a six-hour working day, as offered to Swedish parents? And welcoming pathways back into the workforce for women who have taken time out to raise the next generation, so that they are not punished for their efforts?
For those under-twos who must attend child care because of a parent’s circumstances, Manne argues that the standard of care must be raised to one caregiver to three babies. At present, Australian regulations require only one staff member to five babies – but humans, her book points out, do not have babies in litters.
Children who are not securely attached to a trusted adult in the early years are called “insecure”, and one sub-form of that insecurity is “the avoidant child”, who shuts down emotionally, giving up attempts to connect with the parent and repressing his own needs for affection by busying himself with activities. Such children are more self-centred and hard-hearted in their dealings with others.
This might be one way in which those two worlds (described in these books) overlap. Manne writes about the possibility that we are becoming “an avoidant society . . . cooler, impatient if not hostile to the display of dependency needs in children and the vulnerable, attracted to ideas of self-sufficiency and independence, and dismissive of attachment needs.
“Another way of looking at the harsh new world, however, is to see (these qualities) as imperatives for survival in the hyper-individualist paradise of the new capitalism.
A good childhood, in (this) dog-eat-dog world . . . gives children unreasonable expectations.”
Motherhood: How should we care for our children? By Anne Manne. Allen and Unwin, $29.95.
Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian society has turned its back on children and why children matter. By Fiona Stanley, Sue Richardson and Margot Prior. Pan Macmillan, $30.
· 25 per cent of eight to 12-year-olds are overweight or obese.
· 18 per cent of four to 17-year-olds have clinically significant mental-health problems.
· Type 2 diabetes in under-17s rose about 2.8 per cent a year between 1990 and 2002.
· In 1970, the suicide rate for teenagers aged 15 to 19 was 8.4 per 100,000. In 2003, it was 12.7 per 100,000.
· In 1984, 33 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds who drank alcohol were binge drinkers. By 2002, the figure was 41 per cent.
· Children under care and protection orders rose from 335 per 100,000 children in 1997 to 460 per 100,000 in 2003.

First published in The Age.