I'm thrilled to have Paul Bongiorno launching the book.
I'd written this article for todays Canberra Times, looking at the transition from Rudd to Gillard, and the role of personalities and policies in politics . . .
THERE’S NO GETTING AWAY FROM KEVIN
Since the beginning of the year, Labor’s had just one problem – timing. It’s important to note that it’s still far from certain that the party will be kicked out of government in three weeks time. More than any election in the last two decades, thousands of people will walk into polling booths with absolutely no idea of who’s name they’ll be putting the number “1” against.
The polls don’t offer any definitive guide as to who’ll win in just three weeks time. The very people who will decide the result haven’t yet made up their mind, so don’t believe anyone who insists, definitively, they ‘know’ who’ll win. They don’t. But this is a very big worry for Labor, and that’s because these voters normally plump for the status quo. Australians don’t like change. They’ll give anyone a fair go, or (to use a bizarre phrase that’s become a new colloquialism) give anyone a “fair shake of the sauce bottle, mate”. That doesn’t mean electors will offer Julia Gillard the keys to the Lodge, even though she snatched them away from the previous occupant.
When Gillard dispatched Kevin Rudd, as far as the public was concerned she was trashing everything he’d done during the past three years. Her message, just moments after being anointed as leader, was that Labor had become derailed and needed to “get back on track”. She was right.
Over the past six months I’ve been working on my book, Rudd’s Way, which examines exactly why things have turned so pear-shaped. As I spoke to Labor insiders it became increasingly obvious that the government’s problems could be explained simply by using one, four-letter word. Rudd. No matter how much people referred to the difficulties of implementing policies, or the way in which the conflagration accompanying the global financial crisis had inhibited Labor’s opportunities to re-shape the country, this conversations kept returning to the PM.
The key problem was Rudd’s method of operating. The first issue that became apparent was Rudd’s failure to delegate. He demanded to be involved in the most intricate details of particular projects, but also expected to be able to control everything across the huge spectrum of government activities. This might still have been acceptable, if not for the second issue – Rudd’s failure to accept the advice of others. He needed to be convinced that each policy was ‘right’. While this attitude appeared to be laudable, it inevitably ended in disaster as issues kept banking up as they awaited his decision. Finally, and inextricably bound up with these weaknesses, came the cataclysmic failure that guaranteed that when his fall came, it would be with a speedy rush towards oblivion. Rudd never managed to develop friendships.
Everyone in the Labor caucus quickly became aware that Rudd belonged to a faction of one. Even his staff were younger, much younger, than he was. He didn’t like being challenged. He insisted that everyone had to hop on board the ‘Rudd express’, or be left at the station. There was no way he could be convinced that other interpretations might be correct. He arrogated to himself the ability to define the world. He’d excluded others from offering advice until he’d become isolated into a world of his own.
Last year one of Australia’s largest companies was in difficulty. The Managing Director needed to speak to Rudd and a meeting was arranged. The businessman understood the Prime Minister was busy, so he didn’t mind being kept waiting for three quarters of an hour. What left him flabbergasted, however, was that when Rudd did finally see him the first ten minutes were taken up with the PM lecturing him before Rudd abruptly insisted he only had five minutes and “it had better be quick”. In the end the business had to find another way out of its difficulty. The irony is that when I described this story to a member of caucus, they insisted the businessman had been lucky. “At least he didn’t get screamed at,” the parliamentarian commented.
Personal interactions like these fuelled a readiness to dispense with Rudd. Nevertheless, even despite this anguish, on the Tuesday caucus meeting one day before he was rolled, nobody spoke out against the leader and told him he had to go. There were policy disagreements but the caucus was determined to work through the difficulties. It still appeared as if there was time to turn things around and finally Rudd appeared to be listening.
The very next day Gillard announced she was challenging for the leadership. It looked as if her timing was perfect. The date of her assault just happened to be ideal. It was right at the end of the sitting period, just before the long winter break: it couldn’t have been better if it had all been planned. The knife fell, Julia was ready with her pearls, and an enthusiastic electorate seemed to welcome the new PM, who promised to introduce new policies because the party had, supposedly, lost its way.
Gillard successfully identified the problems that had caused the seeds of disillusionment with Labor to grow. The mining tax, asylum seekers and global warming are massive issues – but Rudd knew that. He had talked over, with Gillard, possible solutions to all these problems. Troublingly, it turned out that she didn’t have the answers either. The truth seems to be that one leader was jettisoned for another simply in the hope that a different personality might be able to provide the electoral victory the party so desperately needed.
Unfortunately, spooked that over time her popularity might fall like Rudd’s, Gillard rushed to an election before managing to show how her policies might overcome the problems she’d identified with Rudd’s methods. Unfortunately this election will be about policy, not personalities. Now Labor has thrown away the benefit of incumbency. The party’s lost control of the timing. Things are turning ugly.
Paul Bongiorno will launch Rudd’s Way at the Paperchain bookshop in Manuka tonight at 6.30.