There are, mythologists say, recurring motifs in basic narratives around the world, best laid out in the “hero’s journey”. For lovers of political mythology, Christine Jackman’s Inside Kevin ’07 ticks all the boxes, for it’s nothing more or less than Tim Gartrell’s account of the slaying of the Howard Government, with some help from Mark Arbib, Jim Chalmers and others.
Joseph Campbell fans check it out: there’s the “call to adventure” issued by Alan Milburn when he descends on Sydney to tell Gartrell and co that they needed a radical change in approach if they are to defeat Howard; there’s the “refusal of the call” out of loyalty to Kim Beazley, there’s John Faulkner as the wise old mentor, there’s “crossing the first threshold” with the installation of Kevin Rudd, a “road of trials” along the way for Gartrell and his fellow adventurers, before the “approach to the inmost cave” and the ordeal of the election campaign, before the reward of victory, after which Gartrell and the other adventurers can return to domesticity at the end.
The reliance on Gartrell and Arbib makes for a slightly patchy account. Jackman mainly focuses heavily on Queensland — unsurprisingly given her background. Western Australia only makes an appearance at the end, for example, when the bad news rolls in from the west. The policy context is mostly lacking, as well, only playing a role where it leads to gaffes and other strife, or serves to demonstrate Labor’s old versus new mantra. The only exception is Workchoices, primarily seen as a motivating force for an all-out union campaign against Howard, but also as emblematic of how Rudd and Gillard moved Labor position beyond Beazley’s reactive strategy to offering a more nuanced and “safer” choice for the electorate.
Rudd features extensively in the book, strangely enough, although whatever interviews Jackman had with him don’t appear to have lent a great deal of on-the-record material. Perhaps because of that, or because of the emphasis on the perspective of Gartrell and Arbib, there’s a curious absence at the very centre of the story. Rudd himself floats above the narrative, somehow detached, offering a different persona depending on the context, but the real individual is never really tangible.
There’s the Sunrise Kevin, the Kevin who is Wayne Goss’s offsider, there’s the ruthlessly ambitious Kevin, the Kevin obsessed with detail, but Kevin Rudd himself is missing — something touched on by Sunrise producer Adam Boland when he laments at the end of the book that Rudd has shut himself off further since becoming Prime Minister.
At one point in the book Rudd uses Russians dolls as an analogy for the ALP’s need to remove the outer layers of voter concerns about national security and the economy before they can discuss “softer” issues. In fact it’s not a bad analogy for Rudd himself, who has gathered more and more shells as he has ascended from bureaucrat to staffer to backbencher to Prime Minister. At the core, though, what is there?
We know less than any recent Prime Ministers — less even than stone-faced Malcolm Fraser — about what Rudd is actually like. With Hawke, Keating and Howard, what you saw was what you got, whether it was Hawke’s messianic self-conviction, Keating’s seamless combination of thug and big-picture visionary, or Howard’s sheer, dogged ordinariness.
Perhaps it’s Rudd’s newcomer status. Politically, he’s only been on the scene five minutes, and unless you’re a regular Sunrise viewer you’re unlikely to have known much about Rudd before December 2006. But even so, Rudd has a detachment, perhaps best demonstrated by his habit of studiously ploughing through his paperwork while not at the Dispatch Box in Question Time, as if to say “you guys can engage in this theatre, but some of us have real work to do.”
It’s verging on psychoanalytic bullsh-t to suggest Rudd’s family circumstances are at work here, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that a young, brilliant kid growing up in the backblocks of Queensland, having lost his dad when just 11, would develop as a defence mechanism a capacity to project an appropriate persona to people, while carefully insulating his real self from the outside world and the damage it can inflict.
The studied self-deprecation is another giveaway on this score. No one is under any illusions that Rudd knows how intelligent he is — but his constant references to his nerdishness, to not having all the answers, looks like another defence mechanism — a clever and appealing one — but one that has been used by plenty of intelligent people to get along with the rest of us mere mortals.
Becoming Prime Minister — as Boland notes in the book — will only reinforce this. You’re a full-time public figure, perhaps the public figure, and your life is no longer your own. If Rudd has a tendency to hide himself, the demands of his current job will only exacerbate it. Inside Kevin 07 may not be the last book about the Rudd years in which the central figure seems curiously absent.