I wrote yesterday in my review of Nicholas Stuart’s Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Biography that Rudd has “an overweening tendency to maintain control over events and their interpretations”.

Stuart correctly identified Rudd’s obsession with maintaining control as both a factor in his rise to date and a very big danger sign for the future. We’ve just seen another manifestation of Rudd’s characteristic reaction to events beyond his control — as Ken Lovell put it pithily at the leftie blog Road to Surfdom:

I have heard a rumour that Kevin Rudd wants all union officials to sign a loyalty oath, swearing that they will never under any circumstances say anything mean about an employer, on pain of being dismissed from the Labor Party in disgrace.

Seriously, what is the man doing? First he gets Dean Mighell to resign, now he wants the WA branch to expel Joe McDonald. Has he gone completely insane? I mean, what is this, a sort of Ruddist mini-purge to improve manners in industry?

I can’t think of anything better designed to reinforce in the public’s mind that the Labor Party and the trade unions are one and the same thing. Howard’s mob must be hugging themselves with glee.

Not only this, but Rudd risks setting has set himself up for an endless series of misadventures between now and the election, and indeed beyond then if he’s stupid enough to maintain this ridiculous posturing. Does he seriously think Mighell and McDonald are the only two union officials in the country who’ve said something nasty to an employer? People will be queuing up outside News Ltd offices to hand over their videos or give statements.

You have to wonder if Rudd has the slightest idea of what actually happens in the robust cut and thrust of industrial relations in the real world. Maybe he thinks the Rottweilers on the wharves were there for the kiddies on the picket line to play with. Maybe he thinks union officials should say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they visit a site where a worker has just been killed because of an employer’s negligence.

Rudd wedged himself on this issue as long ago as Dean Mighell’s speech at the Labor conference. With further revelations about Mighell’s negotiating style, Rudd could have brushed  off the story by saying that unions operate in a robust environment and that individual union officials’ behaviour was not his (Rudd’s) responsibility.

I’ve worked as an industrial relations consultant, representing community organisations as employers as well as employees, and I can vouch for the fact that industrial negotiations — even in white-collar settings — are not Baptist Union tea parties. It’s not too hard a point to make: people understand that IR is adversarial.

Instead, Rudd reacted, as he has again to the vision of Joe McDonald, without thinking of the political implications. Bursts from the blue like these do appear to be blind spots for Rudd — and his instinct seems to be to regain control by demonstrating “strength” and literally making the offenders go away (from the ALP).

But Lovell is quite right. The politics of this is horrible for Rudd. If anything is going to give the Government’s attack on union power legs, it’s Rudd’s mishandling of it. Rudd would have been far better off learning, and saying, that there are some things that happen that he can’t control.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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