The whole concept of an “unauthorised biography” of a living person calls to mind either a salacious scandalous hatchet job or a critical investigation of details of a life the subject would rather leave unexamined.

Nicholas Stuart’s Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, published this Saturday, certainly contains no smoking guns and there’ll be no particular gain in Peter Costello drilling into it, yellow marker in hand. But interestingly, there’s nothing revealed in the book either which should have led Rudd himself to refuse cooperation. And that might be the most telling criticism possible.

Biographies of political leaders released during the lead-up to an election are perforce journalistic in style, but also journalistic in method – that is to say, they rely principally for their source material on already published material and the willingness of sources to speak on and off the record. Writers in this position don’t have access, as academic biographers do decades later, to archives and private correspondence. The importance of direct informants, in shaping the story to be told, is heightened by the pressing nature of the deadline.

Nicholas Stuart’s frustration with this conundrum – the fact that Rudd asked associates and friends not to cooperate with the biographer – is evident in the writing. At times, the narrative is less favourable to Rudd than it might be had it been informed by a wider range of sources – most strikingly where The Latham Diaries has to stand in as a primary account of events. Stuart is well aware that Latham is a highly partial and possibly unreliable source, but sometimes he’s the best source in the absence of comment from Rudd and his supporters.

Stuart returns to this theme, introduced in the introduction, in the final chapter on Rudd’s time as leader. Here he pinpoints, perhaps, Rudd’s biggest weakness – paradoxically also probably one of his attributes most conducive to his success: his overweening tendency to attempt to maintain control over events and their representations.

It’s almost uncanny that this aspect of Rudd’s character has been highlighted so prominently at the same time as the biography is released. In an op-ed published in The Australian on Tuesday, Stuart had this to say:

At some point Rudd has to realise he can’t control everything. The tight direction and authority he’s used to achieve his initial ambition of becoming Labor leader isn’t enough to ensure his elevation to the next level.

Once you’re performing on the national stage things happen, even if you don’t want them to. For example, people write biographies, whether you cooperate with them or not. Learning how to delegate is a vital part of getting to the top.

Since that was written, we’ve read about the attempts by Rudd’s office to prevent publication of a briefing document on productivity apparently left behind at a media event. Whether or not the drive and focus Stuart identifies in Rudd takes him to the Lodge is an unknown at this stage. But it’s more clear than ever from this biography that it could also be Rudd’s Achilles heel.

A longer version of this review will be published at On Line Opinion.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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