Rudd’s downfall: his own handiwork, and years in the making
Kevin Rudd's alienation of his colleagues and factional powerbrokers was so great that the end of his popularity meant the end of his prime ministership. Telling backbenchers "I don't give a fuck what you fuckers think," probably wasn't the best start, write Bernard Keane and Paul Barry.
Today marks the first anniversary of the 24 hours that led to the deposition of Kevin Rudd — aka the Night of the Long Knives. Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane and senior journalist Paul Barry draw a portrait of a man at the height of enormous power, and how quickly his base was eroded. Keane and Barry plot how Rudd unwittingly trashed his own power base with astonishing swiftness — hollowing out his influence so effectively that when his public popularity collapsed, so too did his prime ministership …
Kevin Rudd’s downfall, in the eyes of his Labor critics, began early.
In November 2007, he brought Labor back into power after 11 years in the wilderness. Not since Paul Keating in 1993 had a Labor leader held such power. And wield it he did.
In the days after the election, Rudd shut himself away in Brisbane for four days and, in accordance with his canny pre-election grab for power from Labor’s factions, chose his cabinet with only minimal input from party power brokers. And on his return to Canberra — this was denied today by Rudd but backed by one of those present — the prime minister-elect summoned senior MPs Martin Ferguson, Craig Emerson and John Hogg one by one to his office and ripped into them for disloyalty and leaking, demanding they swear fealty to him in front of witnesses.
It was a management style MPs would have to get used to.
Rudd also took a very different attitude to the spoils of office than that expected by MPs. He slashed ministerial staff by 30%, and made even long-serving staff re-apply for their jobs “on a merit basis”. To the annoyance of many, he gave major appointments to senior Coalition figures. A plan to slash MPs’ entitlements prompted a delegation of backbenchers, led by Victorian power broker David Feeney, to complain to Rudd.
“I don’t give a fuck what you fuckers think,” Rudd told them. It was a perfect summation of Rudd’s view of his backbench and the factions — and another jolt for factional leaders, unused to being told how irrelevant they were.
But then Rudd seemed expert at offending everyone. He alienated unions by refusing to thank them for their critical election role. He infuriated backbenchers with his micromanagement and refusal to consult on matters large and small — even planning visits to marginal seats without consulting the local member.
Even senior ministers who strayed off the day’s talking points were scolded by Rudd’s office. Bureaucrats — some called him “Captain Queeg” — chafed under his incessant demands, only to be abused by Rudd “I’ve simply got news for the Public Service — there’ll be more,” he declared. He himself burnt through personal staff at a rate of knots.
But the voters loved it. Bagging public servants and factional leaders played well in the polls. His apology to the Stolen Generations and decision to sign the Kyoto Protocol gave him an extended honeymoon. And just as electoral gravity was pulling him to earth, his handling of the GFC sent his approval ratings soaring again. His rapid assemblage of a stimulus package and his calm support for the banks returned Labor’s vote to levels not seen since the early days of Bob Hawke.
It made Rudd untouchable. Stripped of influence and patronage, factional power brokers could only sit back and wait — but they knew that while he remained a hit with voters, he was steadily alienating Caucus.
Then came Tony Abbott, and everything changed.
Rudd helped create Abbott’s leadership. Instead of treating climate change as the great moral and economic challenge of our time, Rudd treated it as a weapon with which to wedge the Coalition. Eventually, he wedged them so hard they broke apart — only for Rudd himself to be blasted by the shrapnel. Abbott, having seen Rudd use climate change as a political weapon for two years, had no compunction in simply doing the same back to him.
Abbott’s unrelenting aggression and his ex-journalist’s knack of being able to frame a simple narrative to serve his own purposes rattled Rudd — badly. He began making mistakes — and pleas from senior players such as John Faulkner to call a climate change-based double dissolution election in early 2010, which Rudd would have won handily, fell on deaf ears.
By this stage, too, Rudd’s obsession with micromanagement had restructured the basic decision-making processes of the government. The key decision makers of the GFC crisis — Rudd, Swan, Gillard and Tanner — had become the permanent core of the government, with cabinet often asked to sign off on decisions already taken by the “Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee” with — or sometimes without — the relevant portfolio minister. Laura Tingle revealed the dominance of this kitchen cabinet in early March last year. By that stage, access to Rudd had become increasingly difficult even for ministers.
That was the start of an eight-week period that put in place the conditions for the factions to strike back. In late April, Lenore Taylor revealed that the SPBC had walked away from the CPRS for at least three years. Rudd had, amazingly, ditched the great moral and economic challenge of our time.
Then, just a few days later, he and Swan unveiled the government’s long-awaited response to the Henry Tax Review, centred on a new mining royalties scheme. Sources close to Rudd say he believed that Swan had bedded down the essentials of the new tax. The hostile reaction from the mining industry, whipped along by Abbott and News Ltd, which had been railing against Rudd’s government since its commencement, showed it was anything but. The government found itself up against some of the world’s biggest multinational companies, hell-bent on changing government policy — if necessary by changing the government itself.
By this time Labor’s polling had well and truly returned to earth. The CPRS decision was a killer blow, directly undermining the political persona Rudd was creating. He was the least-known prime minister of the modern era, having only been in politics since 1998, and mainly known for appearing on breakfast television. He lacked the decades in public life that Hawke, Keating and Howard all brought to the prime ministership, which made them known quantities for voters.
When he walked away from the CPRS, he set voters wondering what exactly he stood for — and whether he stood for anything at all. The conviction leader of the apology, Kyoto and the GFC suddenly looked like an ordinary, jobbing politician who would do anything to save his backside under pressure.
And without his shield of popularity, Rudd was suddenly vulnerable.
The idea of removing Rudd — at that stage at the nadir of his polling, but still faring better than John Howard at a similar point in 1998 — was first mooted four weeks before the actual assassination, as right-faction figures began workshopping an act unheard of even within the NSW Labor Party — executing a successful first-term leader.
David Feeney and Bill Shorten, a man convinced of his own call to greatness and of Rudd’s malfeasance in failing to recognise it, combined with Mark Arbib — whom Rudd had rapidly promoted on his arrival in the Senate — and South Australian Catholic hard-liner Don Farrell, who had knifed predecessor Linda Kirk for backing Rudd against Kim Beazley in 2006, to form a right-wing push aimed against their leader. Their only, but fundamental, problem was that the one candidate to replace Rudd, Julia Gillard, was unconvinced and unwilling to participate.
Still, the participants weren’t idle. There was careful backgrounding of journalists about internal NSW Labor polling showing the party faced a disaster. The disastrous Penrith state by-election in June was blamed on Rudd as much as the discredited NSW Labor Party. Caucus was becoming increasingly panicky about Labor’s chances at the forthcoming election and whether Rudd had a plan to win.
And there may have been polling other than NSW Labor’s. The mining industry was conducting its own polling for its war against Rudd. Labor sources suggest John Connolly and Partners, a high-profile marketing, lobbying and reputation-management firm, conducted polling for BHP, one of its lobbying clients; BHP’s key internal lobbyist was former Labor luminary Geoff Walsh. Walsh met with one of the assassins, Arbib factotum Karl Bitar, during the mining war.
The last chance for the dispatch of Rudd before Parliament rose for winter — and the election campaign unofficially started — was at the end of June. Still, there was no challenger; a caucus meeting that week passed uneventfully. But Rudd, again demonstrating how rattled he was, had already blinked and asked his chief-of-staff, Alister Jordan, to canvass his support within the party against Gillard.
The revelation stunned caucus: here was further evidence — indeed the final straw — of just how dismissive Rudd could be of his colleagues, sending out a staffer to talk about the most crucial issue between an MP and his or her leader. And it infuriated Gillard, sending her into the fray. Rudd had lit the spark and the conflagration consumed him.
Several things drove the massive flow of votes to Gillard on the night of June 23: years of resentment toward Rudd and his management style; the knowledge that once the plot to oust Rudd was revealed, any result other than a Gillard elevation would wreck Labor’s electoral chances; and the conviction that Gillard would do better than Rudd, or at least could hardly do as badly.
To that end, Labor figures say, the plotters, including Arbib, took the astonishing and unprecedented step of circulating the mining industry polling among MPs, showing disastrous outcomes for Rudd Labor in the seats of Greenway and Lindsay. At that stage, Rudd and Swan were said to be on the cusp of a deal to resolve the stand-off with the miners, which might have served as a circuit-breaker for Rudd. But the assassins struck before any deal could be finalised. Gillard and Swan signed off on an agreement just days later.
So who was responsible for the downfall of one of Australia’s most popular prime ministers?
“Kevin Rudd,” says Labor elder Robert Ray, without a moment’s hesitation. “He had so alienated everyone by his arrogance and hubris that the moment the figures collapsed he had no protection.”
Rudd has long been perceived as an outsider in his own party, and his alienation from his colleagues was the key to his downfall. And yet his prime ministership personified modern Labor. In its centralisation and micro-management, its mistrust of MPs, its lack of adherence to core values, and most of all in its fragility and skittishness, it reflected a hollowed-out, managerial party that is no longer sure what it stands for.
Rudd’s overthrow and the subsequent wreck of the Gillard prime ministership showed that Labor can change its leaders, but they aren’t the problem. The party itself is.
*This essay is just a taste of what’s to come as part of the top-secret project from Paul Barry that Crikey subscribers will soon have access to …