This week’s leadership-challenge-that-wasn’t in the Federal Parliamentary Caucus of the Australian Labor Party saw the likely end of Kevin Rudd’s political career. At the last moment he bottled it, having calculated that he did not have the numbers to win a vote of his caucus colleagues and so deciding not to stand. Ms Gillard was re-elected leader of the FPLP unopposed. Why Rudd failed to win caucus support is explained clearly in subsequent commentary by one of his former speech-writers, James Button:
The trick to government, Paul Keating once said, is to pick three big things and do them well. But Rudd opened a hundred policy fronts, and focused on very few of them. He centralised decision-making in his office yet could not make difficult decisions. He called climate change the greatest moral challenge of our time, then walked away from introducing an emissions trading scheme. He set a template for governing that Labor must move beyond.
On Thursday, for the third time in three years, a large majority of Rudd’s caucus colleagues made it clear that they did not want him as leader. Yet for years Rudd seemed as if he would never be content until he returned as leader. On Friday he said that he would never again seek the leadership of the party. He must keep his word, or else the impasse will destabilise and derail the party until he leaves Parliament.
Since losing the prime ministership, Rudd never understood that for his prospects to change within the government he had to openly acknowledge, at least in part, that there were sensible reasons why Gillard and her supporters toppled him in 2010. Then, as hard as it would have been, he had to get behind Gillard, just as Bill Hayden put aside his great bitterness and got behind Bob Hawke and joined his ministry after losing the Labor leadership to him in 1983.
Yes, Rudd’s execution was murky and brutal and should have been done differently, perhaps with a delegation of senior ministers going to Rudd first to say change or go. Yes, the consequences have been catastrophic for Gillard and for the ALP. ”Blood will have blood,” as Dennis Glover, a former Gillard speechwriter who also wrote speeches for Rudd, said in a newspaper on Thursday.
But why did it happen? Why did so many Labor MPs resolve to vote against Rudd that he didn’t dare stand? Why was he thrashed in his 2012 challenge? Why have his numbers not significantly moved, despite all the government’s woes?
Because – it must be said again – Rudd was a poor prime minister. To his credit, he led the government’s brave and decisive response to the global financial crisis. His apology speech changed Australia and will be remembered for years to come. But beyond that he has few achievements, and the way he governed brought him down.
At the time of his 2012 challenge, seven ministers went public with fierce criticisms of Rudd’s governing style. When most of them made it clear they would not serve again in a Rudd cabinet, many commentators wrote this up as slander and character assassination of Rudd, or as one of those vicious but mysterious internal brawls that afflict the Labor Party from time to time. They missed the essential points: that the criticisms came from a diverse and representative set of ministers, and they had substance.
If the word of these seven ministers is not enough, consider the reporting of Rudd’s treatment of colleagues by Fairfax journalist David Marr in his 2010 Quarterly Essay, Power Trip. Or the words of Glover, who wrote last year that as a ”member of the Gang of Four Hundred or So (advisers and speechwriters) I can assure you that the chaos and frustration described by Gillard supporters during February’s failed leadership challenge rang very, very true with about 375 of us.”
Consider the reporting of Rudd’s downfall by ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy in his book, Party Thieves. Never had numbers tumbled so quickly, Cassidy wrote. ”That’s because Rudd himself drove them. His own behaviour had caused deep-seated resentment to take root.” Leaders had survived slumps before and would again. But ”Rudd was treated differently because he was different: autocratic, exclusive, disrespectful and at times flat-out abusive”. Former Labor minister Barry Cohen told Cassidy: ”If Rudd was a better bloke he would still be leader. But he pissed everybody off.”
These accounts tallied with my own observations when I worked as a speechwriter for Rudd in 2009. While my own experience of Rudd was both poor and brief, I worked with many people – 40 or more – who worked closely with him. Their accounts were always the same. While Rudd was charming to the outside world, behind closed doors he treated people with rudeness and contempt. At first I kept waiting for my colleagues to give me another side of Rudd: that he could be difficult but was at heart a good bloke. Yet apart from some conversations in which people praised his handling of the global financial crisis, no one ever did.
Since he lost power, is there any sign that Rudd has reflected on his time in office, accepted that he made mistakes, that he held deep and unaccountable grudges and treated people terribly?
Did he reflect on the rages he would fly into when people gave him advice he didn’t want, how he would put those people into what his staff called ”the freezer”, sometimes not speaking to them for months or more? Did he reflect on the way he governed in a near permanent state of crisis, how his reluctance to make decisions until the very last moment coupled with a refusal to take unwelcome advice led his government into chaos by the middle of 2010, when his obsessive focus on his health reforms left the government utterly unprepared to deal with the challenges of the emissions trading scheme, the budget, the Henry tax review and the mining tax? To date there is no sign that he has learnt from the failures of his time as prime minister.
Through his wife, Rudd is currently the richest member of the Australian Commonwealth Parliament, and perhaps the richest person ever to be an MP. He is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese and famously intelligent, although perhaps not as bright as his predecessors as Labor leader, Gough Whitlam or Doc Evatt, or former ministers, Isaac Isaacs, Ted Theodore or Barry Jones. It is possible, of course, to have a first-rate mind and a second-rate temperament. An autocratic management style – unpopular within the Labor Party at any time, as Evatt and Whitlam both learnt - is even less appropriate when the Party lacks a majority in the House, and has to rely on a permanent, floating two-up game of ad hoc negotiations with Green and Independent MPs to pass legislation.