While the political execution of Kevin Rudd was shockingly quick, the exploitation of his remains is an altogether more drawn-out affair, and rather more sordid.
It’s human nature to impose meaningful narratives on events via hindsight. It’s comforting in a cold universe devoid of any meaning to have the illusion we understand what’s going on. That’s why we’ll always have conspiracy theorists to explain that shocking events are the product of sinister government cabals. At least that way people feel someone is in charge, even if they hate them.
But the busy myth-making about what the end of Rudd really meant is much more than that. In constructing narratives about what happened to Rudd and why, there are agendas to be run, causes to be prosecuted and, perhaps, money to be made. Imposing your own narrative on conflict is a famous perquisite of victory.
That was demonstrated on Friday when Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard (the former, mostly) contrasted their approach to resolving the RSPT stand-off with that of Rudd. The contrast, as the fallen leader liked to say, was stark. You got the impression Rudd was incapable of reason and the simple act of sitting down and talking to anyone. Gillard, channelling the political spirit of Bob Hawke, had to “intervene”, as Swan put it, and offer a way forward through common sense and goodwill.
Federal Labor aren’t the only ones doing this: John Brumby even blamed his dire state Newspoll last week on Rudd. In time, one feels, all things will be blamed on Rudd. He’ll continue to do sterling service to Labor as party scapegoat for a long time to come.
You may recall Richard Nixon’s famous “madman theory”. Henry Kissinger (younger readers will recall him as played by Paul Sorvino) tells the North Vietnamese that the President (Anthony Hopkins) is bonkers, and apt to do something quite over-the-top unless they came to the negotiating table quick smart. Now we have our own version. Rudd’s erstwhile deputies are now using a similar idea to frame the deal with the miners as the triumph of sweet reason, rather than a spectacular cave-in to a clutch of rich, powerful foreigners.
And it doesn’t hurt when it comes to dealing with voters who might still be wondering why the bloke they voted into office is no longer running the show. He went a bit funny in the head, you see folks. You always knew he was a bit odd, didn’t you? Well, turns out you were right.
And suddenly everyone has stories about how strange Rudd was. There are now charming suggestions he had a personality disorder.
There are other narratives. Rudd himself offered one at the fateful Caucus meeting: the federal party had now been infected with the same self-defeating obsession with leadership change as the NSW party. Other Rudd supporters echoed this line, and some in the media, including myself, have argued it.
It’s naturally part of the media’s role to use hindsight to explain the unforeseen was in fact always inevitable, and to offer convenient narratives from which our readers can draw appropriate lessons. The narratives, mind you, never deviate from the same half-dozen basic stories we always tell, but the details and character grace notes are what keep them fresh.
For example, I’ve also been trying to frame the whole thing around my view that Australian politics has lost its capacity for major economic reform (which is more or less just a version of how things were always better in the good old days). An opposite narrative came from Peter Hartcher over the weekend, when he argued Rudd’s downfall came about because he wasn’t enough of a reformer, rather than too much of one, because Australians still have an appetite for economic reform. Elsewhere in Crikey today, Charles Richardson addresses similar issues.
Hartcher’s interpretation rests partly on the assumption that Rudd’s abandonment of the CPRS was fatal to him, precipitating a collapse in the polls and his personal standing. Rudd’s collapse was neither anywhere near as bad as John Howard’s during his first term, nor apparently fatal, given the slow but steady increase in the ALP vote over recent weeks that saw a six-point 2PP gap between the parties in Rudd’s last poll. Voters were undoubtedly angry about the CPRS decision — reflecting a complete misunderstanding of the CPRS, which locked in incentives for big polluters to continue churning about increasing levels of emissions well into the 2020s — but it seemed they were getting over it.
Alan Kohler offered his own narrative last week in Crikey, which was at least entertaining in reconfiguring the spill as a replay of Julius Caesar, with the would-be tyrant struck down but systemic flaws still remaining, meaning another autocrat could appear to destroy the Republic at any time. Thankfully Alan hadn’t yet heard that Rudd’s nephew Van was taking on Gillard in her own seat, giving us the whole Octavian parallel as well.
Apart from offering a variant of the Rudd-as-Kim Jong-il theme peddled by the likes of Glenn Milne, Kohler’s eccentric reading was really a variant of an emerging tactic from conservatives and rentseekers, to use the term ‘sovereign risk’ as a means of delegitimising the decisions of democratically-elected governments. Sovereign risk used to be a very specific term relating to the risk that governments might default on their borrowings, but has now morphed into a generic description of any government policy to which an industry — or even a single business — might object.
The logic of ‘sovereign risk’ is that financial markets should be the ultimate arbiters of policy, not elected officials. Or more correctly, international financial markets as interpreted by vested interests — financial markets in fact appeared to repeatedly signal approval of the RSPT through the comparative performance of Australian mining stocks compared to other local stocks and foreign miners, a disparity that only Clive Palmer tried, lamely, to explain as reflecting that they knew the tax would never happen.
Let’s try another narrative. Who was the last leader cut down amid a well-funded, highly-organised campaign against a signature government reform? Step forward John Howard, whose prime ministership was wrecked more than anything else by WorkChoices and the union movement’s exploitation of the issue. That was what turned voters deaf to Howard.
I’d argue WorkChoices wasn’t a ‘real’ reform (whatever that means), merely a reflection of Howard’s residual loathing of trade unions; but if you don’t sign up to that, where does WorkChoices fit in the ‘Australians still want reform’ narrative?
But ultimately that’s just my narrative. You might prefer Hartcher’s, or Gillard’s, or even Abbott’s, when he works one out beyond ‘oh no, I’m being hassled by a chick’. We’re all competing to impose our own interpretation.
My history lecturer used to refer to the ‘traffic accident theory of history’ that suggested great events didn’t occur due to the clash of vast historical forces, but simply because the right people were in the right place at the right time (swap ‘wrong’ for ‘right’ as appropriate).
So here’s the traffic accident theory of Rudd’s prime ministership. Rudd lost his job because despite being a good prime minister he wasn’t that great at buttering up his own backbench, he pissed off some important powerbrokers, he was only ever given the leadership because he seemed popular, and when he had a dip in the polls he made the mistake of offending all his colleagues, including Gillard, with a dud decision to get one of his advisers to sound out a worried Caucus. And once Gillard moved, everyone signed on because it was untenable this close to an election that Rudd might survive.
Wrong place, wrong guy, wrong time. The narrative is that there is no narrative.
I don’t know how right it is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or not, really. This isn’t about being right, it’s about exploiting events for our own purposes. You choose.