Monday, October 29, 2012


Maxine McKew's a great journalist - but that doesn't mean that everything she's written is objective.

Particularly when it comes to politics.

That's hardly surprising. One of the things that makes for great journalism is passion, and McKew's passionate about politics. This is (sort of) a review of her book, Rudd's chance to return to the Lodge (virtually negligible) and Gillard's prior knowledge of the coup (I believe she did know prior to the morning she announced her challenge) . . .


I didn’t bother speaking to Maxine McKew when writing my own book about the downfall of Kevin Rudd. The reason was obvious: she was just too loyal, she wasn’t going to spill the dysfunction of his government. Although I’d known her when she was a brilliant journalist, the minute McKew was endorsed as a Labor candidate it was as if she passed over to the other side. The insightful analysis was dropped and replaced with the formulaic banalities of politics.

McKew had been inspired. She wanted to make a difference and felt – despite her deep knowledge of the way politics actually works – that she could change the world. The problem came when she hitched her star, irrevocably, to Rudd’s. Her position was guaranteed as long as his shone bright in the heavens. But when his light dimmed, it was inevitable hers would be eclipsed.

McKew’s book, Tales from the Political Trenches, reveals, well, what? It tells us that personalities play a central role in the political battles we see played out on the evening news. Look at her demise in Bennelong. She took John Howard’s electorate by offering herself to voters wearing ‘new’ Labor garb, but it turned out the old apparatchiks still ran the party. Two ingredients were essential if the new, improved, formula was to work. Firstly, the courage to embrace policies to create a better world and, secondly, the ability to effectively manage their introduction. Instead McKew found herself surrounded by second-rate people propped up by the institutional party fabric and the broader frameworks of government. Disillusionment was only a matter of time.

Almost inevitably, we are drawn back to the stink emanating from today's issue, “did Julia Gillard plot Rudd’s downfall?" It appears the political assassination was stage-managed with the same degree of care that was displayed by the plotters who concealed their daggers beneath their togas before stabbing Caesar in a sudden flurry of blows. Gillard's equivocal defence, that she only decided to strike on the morning of the confrontation, strains credibility. The conspiracy displayed every hallmark of ruthless aforethought.

But this isn’t new, just join the dots. Nobody – certainly none of Gillard's supporters – raised concerns about Rudd's leadership style on the Tuesday. Then, the next morning, Gillard is supposedly so provoked that she rushes in to confront the PM. But still the press gallery haven't noticed, so one of her supporters hurries down to tell Chris Uhlmann, making sure the drama acquires its own dynamic. Gillard stays with Rudd until the television cameras can get into position. All the time her backers are dressing the sets, deftly, behind the scenes.

Nobody needs a compromised, ineffectual nonentity like Robert McClelland to tell them Gillard's supporters were hawking round dossiers packed with “research" showing Rudd was stuffed. What makes this particular bit of information interesting is simply that it demonstrates the schemers believed McClelland’s sense of loyalty to his leader was so wishy-washy they could get him on board. It appears they were right.  He was out for himself, like so many in that government. There's certainly no record that the Attorney General bothered to let Rudd know what was going on. Eventually even Gillard couldn't stand his bumbling, dismissing him as irrelevant.

Perhaps more significant is that they decided to keep McKew out of the loop. Like me, they knew she was loyal and intelligent. In this book she reveals when disillusionment with Rudd first bloomed. She reveals the moment that Rudd, urged by Gillard, agreed to abandon the attempt to do anything about climate change. It seems incredible that, despite high popularity and with the crystal waters of Sydney Harbour spread before them and the heavy scent of summer in the air, Rudd and Gillard could flunk the challenge to actually implement policies they believed in; but they did. Perhaps they didn’t really believe in anything, because that’s the charge McKew’s levelling. When the government’s response to the detailed policy agenda of the Henry review shrank to little more than a new tax on mining, it was obvious that Rudd’s time was over. It just took the rest of us a long time to catch up.

The couple sitting on the veranda at Kirribilli that day revealed themselves to be little people, caught up in the trivial obsessions of the political class.  That’s why Gillard’s recent speech caught the public imagination. Suddenly people hoped that she stood for something more than herself, for an ideal. Unfortunately the government’s blueprint for engagement with Asia reflects the continuing difficulty it has turning good ideas into practice. We’re still allowing hope to pull its aspirations over our eyes. This is much easier than recognising the sordid reality that surrounds us.

Why is McKew’s book in the news today? I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that this is the second-last sitting week before Christmas. This was, interestingly, exactly the moment in 2006 when Rudd chose to assault his leader, Kim Beazley, that galumphing old duffer who he ruthlessly pushed aside as he raced to become PM. But there’ll be no Christmas in the Lodge for Rudd this year, no matter how often he appears on Lateline to bemoan the sordid nature of politics. His colleagues have already made their judgement and there’ll be no going back.

McKew always independently navigated her own way. But the moment she became a politician she relinquished objectivity. Her book is honest, revealing and, like Lindsay Tanner’s recent book Politics with Purpose, will be seized on by the screeching political class as “proof” of whatever duplicity will serve their momentary purposes. It is exactly this that should concern us. Government must be about more than the latest outrage. These are people we trust to run the economy and decide if our young people should be sent to die in foreign lands. It’s difficult not to suspect that voters got it absolutely right last election (and again in the ACT a fortnight ago) when they failed to decide between the two political offerings placed before them.

People want to be inspired.

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