Slowly recovering from Kevin Rudd

Photo credit: Andrew Meares
Photo credit: Andrew Meares

Little wonder Tony Abbott should lead the plaudits for the retiring Kevin Rudd, as few helped Abbott to the Prime Ministership as much as his predecessor.

Rudd’s three year destablisation of the former Gillard Government eventually succeeded in ousting her from the leadership. But the collateral damage had too greatly tarnished Labor and the seemingly unelectable Abbott easily triumphed in September. Rudd’s supporters bragged their man had ‘saved the furniture‘ but it was his vandalism that left Labor’s tables and chairs in such a precarious position in the first place. Gillard never got the credit for her work and in tandem with Abbott and Rupert Murdoch, Rudd worked to destroy her legacy.

Rudd was always a long-term planner when it came to self-interest. From the moment he was elected to parliament in 1998, he assiduously courted the media, contacting opinion editors to get his work published and going over their heads when they refused. He gained influence of a different sort when he tandem-teamed with Joe Hockey on the Seven Sunrise program for several years. He considered running as leader against Latham in 2004, defeated Kim Beazley two years later and then oversaw Howard’s end in 2007. As Prime Minister his approval ratings soared with big ticket statements such as the Apology adding to his lustre while he and Wayne Swan’s interventionist response to the GFC saved Australia from recession.

But Rudd had too many ideas that went nowhere. He started to unravel in December 2009 after he failed to bring home a climate change agreement from Copenhagen. The same month the domestic political consensus on climate change ended thanks to new Opposition leader Tony Abbott and his right wing supporters. As Rudd flagged in the polls, word got out he was a prime minister who fretted over irrelevancies while tumbleweeds gathered around the big decisions. Rudd was the consummate media performer – his mastery over the airwaves got him his huge public profile in the first place – but as Prime Minister he worked the entire government’s decision-making process into the media cycle. As Kerry-Anne Walsh said in The Stalking of Julia Gillard, Rudd took didn’t have what it took to lead a political party: “A steely and steady personality, the ability to be calm under great pressure and under the weight of extreme criticism, and consistently clear thinking.”

Most of these deficiencies were known to party colleagues from the time he ran against Kim Beazley in 2006. Yet those colleagues knew Rudd was more popular than Beazley and backed him anyway. By mid-2010 that popularity had waned and Rudd was cut loose. If anyone thought Rudd would gently stand aside and quit, they were quickly mistaken. Within weeks of his overthrow, journalists were printing exclusive inside stories of Gillard’s “bastardry”. In the lead-up the 2010 election, Gillard’s hopes of clinging to victory were undermined by a series of devastating questions from Laurie Oakes that showed intimate knowledge of what happened on the night Rudd was deposed.

Gillard retained the prime ministership by dint of her negotiation skills with former Nationals Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Together they carved out an agreement to ensure a minority government would last three years. Minority governments are common in Europe but in Australia they were considered a recipe for chaos and the Opposition aided by a friendly press continually pointed this out, despite the 43rd parliament’s good record on passing legislation. Rudd, meanwhile, was always ready to thrust himself back in the limelight whenever the opportunity offered itself – usually at the worst possible time for Gillard.

Early in the term, Gillard sealed her fate by agreeing to Greens and Independents demands to put a fixed price on carbon. Abbott had declared the fixed price a tax and hung Gillard on her pre-election statement there would be no carbon tax. Less well remembered was the second half of that sentence: “..but let me be clear, I will be putting a price on carbon and I will move to an emission trading scheme.” It didn’t matter – from that moment shock jock Alan Jones and others called her “Juliar”. By the first anniversary of Rudd’s defeat, the knives were out. Newspapers feverishly reported “exclusive” polls in marginal seats that showed voters clamouring for Rudd’s return. At the last moment Rudd and wife Therese Rein cancelled what the media called an Assassination Party “for K’s former and current staff to say thank you” as Rein tweeted.

While Gillard implemented the carbon pricing package with help of the Greens, Rudd stole the limelight again with an announcement he was having heart surgery. As Walsh said Rudd knew the key to media success was “a consistent presence combined with a dash of theatre”.  Whether it was a blow-by-blow account of his ticker troubles or designing a blend of tea for a competition, Rudd always popped up reminding people what they were missing. The media lapped it up and ran it in tandem with Gillard’s disaster du jour and op eds that blared “Rudd was Labor’s last chance”. Yet even as Labor slipped in the polls, the caucus remained firmly behind Gillard. Unlike Rudd, she was consultative and dependable, albeit apparently unelectable.

Rudd’s supporters – Alan Griffin and Mark Bishop – denounced the people that brought Gillard to power as ‘faceless men’ without a hint of irony that Rudd’s own shadowy undermining campaign depended on anonymity and sourceless quotes to media favourites. Rudd relied on media momentum to finally overwhelm his opponent (Gillard, not Abbott).  Much was made of the likely slaughter for the ALP in Queensland in the 2013 election with pundits predicting only Rudd would survive. Though Rudd’s feverish campaigning in the 2012 state election for Anna Bligh had little effect, analysts preferred to concentrate on what Bligh’s annihilation would mean for Gillard. Rudd “zipped” around, secure in his popularity and posing for selfies with adoring fans.

On February 18, 2012 a strange video popped up on Youtube entitled “Kevin Rudd is a happy little Vegemite”. It is the first public glimpse of the Rudd insiders knew, foul-mouthed, explosive temper and quick to blame. A few days later, he resigned as foreign minister citing attacks by colleagues and declaring he no longer had Gillard’s support. With a leadership fight out in the open, Gillard called in the heavy artillery. Ministers denounced Rudd’s tactics in an extraordinary series of public attacks. Wayne Swan said they were sick of Rudd “driving the vote down by sabotaging policy announcements and undermining our substantial economic successes.”

Gillard called for a ballot and Rudd delayed, knowing he did not have the numbers. The media helped again, saying that it might be a two-phase ballot with defeat followed by victory six months later like Paul Keating in 1991. Gillard eventually won the ballot easily 71-31. Rudd retired to the back bench but the cameras followed him as he lapped up the attention. The “clear air” Gillard craved never came. The media remained relentless and the Chinese whispers added to the pollution. History repeated itself as farce in March 2013 when Simon Crean fell on his own sword trying to coax Rudd out for another challenge. Rudd ducked the challenge rather than lose again. But still the sideshow went on, Rudd pumped his persona up and Labor’s poll numbers went down. In June, staring defeat in the face, Bill Shorten blinked and handed Rudd back the leadership.

There was an instant coffee effect with polls briefly returning to 50-50. But Rudd was the souffle that tried to rise twice. Murdoch’s empire was just as ruthless to him as they were to Gillard and as soon as he called the election, they openly called on the electorate to “kick this mob out“. Labor were a rabble, but it was as much Rudd’s doing as any. As Walsh wrote, Rudd “always had to be at the chaotic centre of attention, and whose needs and ambitions inevitably took priority over the interests of the government and the Labor Party, or his loyalty to colleague.” He had no workable strategy, which is why once returned, he was defeated by the most underscrutinised Opposition in Australian political history. As ever with Kevin Rudd, the collateral damage was immense, leaving Labor a broken party.  More importantly he badly failed the public. His failure to implement the “great moral challenge of our generation” leaves the next generation blaming Rudd’s megalomania as much as Abbott’s foolish policies for Australia’s climate change intransigence.

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One thought on “Slowly recovering from Kevin Rudd

  1. A fair summary of the Rudd impact. Interestingly, the few non-politicians warning of the dangers of Rudd way back before the 2007 election were Queensland public servants who remembered his chaotic and unreasonable demands on them from the days of Wayne Goss’s first administration, when he was known as ‘Dr Death’.
    The saddest part of the collateral damage has been the loss of so many good people – Combet, Roxon, Smith, etc – as well as the marginalizing of Wayne Swan. There’s a dearth of talent on both sides of politics now and we are the poorer for it.

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