Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Political lives rarely end in glory.

The contrast between  Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr is instructive.

Perhaps it's got something to do with the motivation behind their actions. Or perhaps it's just luck . . .


Matthew Franklin, the Australian's Chief Political Correspondent looked momentarily stumped. Just an hour earlier, Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions had been utterly trashed, for good, by his ‘colleagues’. Even despite the rolling surf of mistakes that constantly threatened to submerge Julia Gillard, Rudd couldn't obtain the backing of more than a third of the party.

No one quite knew what to expect as they rolled up to Labor’s Caucus room. When Rudd had been dismissed as Prime Minister he’d given an extraordinary, emotional and personally gut-wrenching funeral oration in the private courtyard at the rear of Parliament House. Then, he’d buried the tragic end of his two-and-a-bit years of leadership as a tale of hope frustrated and promise unfulfilled.

This time, however, there was no quivering lip. It was the businessman Kevin on show – no emotion please; just the facts.

“I congratulate Julia on her strong win today,” he began. “The Caucus has spoken.” They had indeed. “I bear no grudges.” Indeed. And then came a long list of public endorsements for others. Because, you understand, “our purpose is to serve the nation, not ourselves.” And so the speel continued. “The great institution of state – the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.” The roll call went on. Perhaps someone believed it, I don’t know. That’s when Rudd had his opportunity to embarrass Franklin.

“A little known institution called ACIAR – the Australian Council for International Agricultural Research”, Rudd stated. “I’ll ask Matthew Franklin to explain its precise functions now.” Franklin, not expecting to suddenly star in an impromptu session of twenty questions, didn’t respond. The transcript says “laughter”. Rudd continued. “Thank you. This is a great bunch of folks.”

And on until he’d reached the end. Personalities don’t just happen: they’re created. And this performance was bravura. Warm. Knowledgable. Concerned about others. There was even the obvious mistake. ACIAR isn’t a Council, it’s a Centre.

But Rudd can be forgiven for that blunder. After all, it’s a ridiculous name for a (quite genuinely) terrific organisation funded with more than $85 million of your dollars annually. A far better name would be AgAid, because that’s what it does – offer agricultural assistance to developing countries. But Rudd was so busy moving onto the next project that he never seemed to have time to worry about the little things. Until eventually, it all unravelled.

Despite ignorant or mischievous comments to the contrary, he won’t be back.

The wall of that same caucus room bears photos of the party’s past leaders.  They are a leaden tribute and they look down more in anger, frustration and bitterness, rather than basking in the glory and adulation of their mates. Underneath the glowering visage is a legend bearing the dates they lead the party. Andrew Fisher is the only person to have ever staged a comeback. He was three-times Prime Minister, but that was way back in 1915. No one talks about Simon Crean returning; yet at least he was consultative when he was chief and built support. Kim Beazley’s the last leader who got more than one go at the job. And, if you want to know why Rudd won’t be back, just think about who it was who knocked Beazley off that second time, before he got the chance to take the party to the polls. There’s no forgetting and forgiving in modern Labor.

The apparatchiks built a machine to win victories and that’s what it’s designed to do. Emotions, policy ideas and people just gum up the works. They’ll be used, chewed up and spat out. Just like the ‘leaders’ on the other side.

Rudd should, if he stands, comfortably retain the seat of Griffith at the next election. Although he suffered a swing of just under four percent against him in 2010, Rudd still managed to secure more than 58 percent of the vote in the residential electorate that boasts the Gabba as its most notable landmark. No one doubts his relationship with the people. It’s just those who come into close contact with him who’ve detected the callous indifference to others that became one of the two hallmarks of his operating style.

One of these was the policy chaos. Rudd insisted on process. The problem was he exempted himself from this requirement. Eventually, he became the weakest link. By the time others had realised this his insensitivity developing personal relationships had decimated the ranks of his closest supporters.

It often takes some time before the sower reaps the biter fruit of the resentment they kindle in others, but eventually that moment comes. The embers had been glowing for a long time when Julia Gillard finally struck. The mood of anger around the party had been seething so strongly that people in her office could be wargaming possible speeches in case she was drafted in to become PM. Naturally she denied she’d been involved. The point is that there’s been no more talk about a “two strike” strategy from Rudd’s camp.

What has instead occupied the commentary are personal anecdotes of horror. Stories about Rudd behaving badly. Everything from rudeness to conceit to madness. There’s no need to go through the litany here. Suffice it to say that few are flattering.

Any idea Gillard may have been fatally wounded after that first ballot has been dispelled by the strength of her victory. If she departs it will be on her own terms, probably in winter, and after nominating her own successor. It is, apparently, still a big ‘if’.

The biggest challenge for the party is to show that it can actually manage government effectively. Many will be watching Bob Carr. His voice has resonated strongly and richly through the airwaves. The reason is simple. He seems to be talking about issues and not pretending he has all the answers. Rudd was all on board the US alliance; Carr seems more thoughtful and inquiring. He seems prepared to question more and prescribe less.

Australia is not a great power. We are located between Asia and the Pacific. It is time we recognised this in our diplomatic engagements with the world. Having a Foreign Minister who isn’t ambitious for a bigger job might well be a significant advantage.

1 comment:

  1. Good call Nick, Carr made no secret of his interest and ambition to be Foreign Minister for most of his life and so, at last, he has reached the role he most coveted. He was waylaid there by the NSW Right of the ALP who kept him in NSW but perhaps now, fate has been unusually kind and given him a chance.