A Thinker On Life's Long Learning Curve An Australian policy wonk seeks a path between bright ideas and party politics

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For some, milestone birthdays are demoral-izing: how can it take so long to achieve so little? Mark Latham was a serious boy who grew into a serious, ambitious man. But for him, turning 40 last week spawned no feelings of failure. "Twenty-five years ago," he says, reclining in his office armchair, his feet up and tie discarded, "my idea for now was to be in Federal Parliament as a Labor M.P., thinking creatively about Labor policy. And that's exactly what I'm doing."

But if Latham has come far from the Housing Commission home on Sydney's southwestern fringe where he grew up, there are those in politics who believe his journey has just begun. Colleagues who describe him as the party's "most adventurous thinker" and "one of the few genuine intellectuals in Canberra" also regard him as a future leader of the Australian Labor Party. If that's Latham's destination, he's not taking the smoothest path. Since resigning from the shadow ministry in disgust after the 1998 Federal election-his pre-election education statement had been rewritten by party leader Kim Beazley's staff during the campaign-Latham has spent much of his time as the Member for Werriwa (which includes most of his old neighborhood) provoking his Labor colleagues with calls for the party to discard outdated left-wing dogma.

Those calls have come in speeches, newspaper columns and books, the latest of which-a pamphlet on education, What Did You Learn Today? (Allen & Unwin)-is typically Latham. It repudiates "mad ideologues" on both sides of politics and argues "lifelong learning needs to become Australia's national pastime." New South Wales Labor Premier Bob Carr called it a "biting, coruscating" work that deserved consideration.

Latham is Australia's best-known proponent of the so-called Third Way, a political platform that tries to chart a course between the dictates of socialism and the free market. He has called on the union movement "to wake up" to itself, and once floated the idea that welfare recipients should eventually repay the assistance they receive.

Some Labor M.P.s think Latham's views would be better espoused from the other side of the House.

A proud maverick, Latham doesn't appear to care. "There are those [in the alp],"

he says, "who believe that we don't need new agendas, that playing the electoral margins and maintaining daily discipline are all we need to do." Rather than fretting about tariffs and the privatization of government assets, Latham argues, the alp of 2001 should be getting worked up about creating a "stakeholder welfare state," in which-among other features-first-time share buyers receive a tax rebate, and some welfare payments are replaced by a system of income accounts from which families can draw according to need.

In Latham's calls for relevance, Labor stalwarts hear echoes of one of their giants, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Indeed, Latham's first job as an economics graduate from Sydney University was as a research assistant to Whitlam-a former Member for Werriwa-who was impressed by the young man's intelligence and interest in politics. Latham's detractors say he shares Whitlam's im-patience and arrogance, but Latham says Whitlam doesn't even possess the latter flaw: "He was by far the most considerate person I've known in politics, and, yes, he probably added to my feeling of wanting to challenge past ortho-doxies, slaughter sacred cows."

One of those cows is the way politics should be played. For Latham, it's vital "not to bury yourself in the traditional institutions-party hierarchies, the 24-hour media cycle, gossip in the corridors of Parliament House." He's inspired by so-called social entrepreneurs, who try to build community spirit and generate wealth at the same time-by, for example, transforming a vacant community hall into a preschool or Internet café.

Latham's supporters say that if the alp wins the next election (due this year)

he will be given a ministry. Latham is doubtful, but says he'd like the chance to implement his ideas. But that may mean softening the gadfly role and playing the age-old game. It's one thing to overhaul policy; quite another to rewrite the law of the jungle.