Kevin Rudd
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd once had it all. He was a popular prime minister, leading a government that had been the most successful in the world at handling the financial crisis and resulting global recession. His opponents were in disarray. He was respected internationally, taken seriously in global capitals.

Then he blew it.

Within the space of six months, he was dumped by his own party and transformed into a political wrecking ball, obsessed with one thing: destroying the woman who replaced him. When he eventually did so, three years later, and replaced Julia Gillard, he had no idea what to do with the prime ministership. More than a year on the back bench, ample time to formulate an alternative policy agenda, was for nothing. Because, revenge achieved, Rudd had fulfilled his goal. 

That was always the problem with Kevin Rudd. He believed in nothing but his own ego and ambition. No core values informed his political life, no deep principles, beyond a burning desire for the top job — prime minister, secretary-general, whatever. In 2007, this helped him. He was a political scrabble-blank onto which Australians could project their hopes — conservative enough for those who liked John Howard but thought he’d been around too long; progressive enough to attract left-wing voters, a nerd who wouldn’t frighten the horses like Mark Latham did.

But you can’t govern without core beliefs. And once the global financial crisis had passed and he had to start governing like a normal PM, he had nothing. He couldn’t convert his popularity into an enduring political persona. The fatal wound, of course, was his abandonment of “the greatest economic and moral challenge of our time”, climate change, when he should have gone to an election over it against Tony Abbott.

He would have demolished Abbott, and the history of the last decade would have been different, especially if he had learnt to govern via cabinet, rather than trying to micromanage the entire Commonwealth. It was not to be. Worse, he couldn’t stand the idea of Julia Gillard leading an effective progressive government either, and worked systematically to wreck that, delivering Tony Abbott — a man who rapidly demonstrated how utterly unfit he was to be Prime Minister — power in a landslide.

It’s been over five years since the electorate rejected Rudd. It’s been tough out of the limelight. There was a tilt for UN Secretary-General when he couldn’t even get the support of his own country. There’s been his rages against Rupert Murdoch, whom he assiduously cultivated in his quest for power. Now, in a quest for another hit of attention, there’s a book on his prime ministership, with excerpts drip-fed by Fairfax, home of many of the journalists who were happy to assist his campaign against Gillard.

What the excerpts confirm is, apart from his hollowness and egomania, a defining characteristic of Rudd is his sheer lack of grace. In the decade since the financial crisis, Wayne Swan had regularly praised Rudd’s role in the government’s response to it, despite the deep gulf between the two, and Swan’s legendary spray at Rudd in 2012. Rudd, conversely, has never missed a chance to attack Swan as incompetent, not up to the job, and treacherous. This is the Swan who made sure the 2008 budget didn’t grease the slope for a slide in a GFC recession, who achieved the unique feat of preventing the mining boom from turning into an inflation boom and who got unemployment down to 5% in an economy with an exchange rate well above parity. Incompetent? Yeah right.

It’s clear that Rudd will never get over being sacked by his own party. In another decade, he’ll still be railing at erstwhile colleagues. But they’ve all moved on. Wayne Swan has been busy locally and internationally on issues like inequality and tax avoidance, is Labor president and is leaving parliamentary politics next year. Lindsay Tanner entered the business world eight years ago. Bill Shorten has gotten on with being a policy-driven opposition leader — something Rudd never was.

As for Julia Gillard, the contrast yesterday was stark: Gillard standing with abuse victims at Parliament House, her role in establishing the royal commission that led to the apology to them acknowledged by all, while Rudd flogged his book by spitting bile at all and sundry. Rudd can write as many books as he wants, but in the end he’s a sad figure, unable to let go of a past in which he had his chance — and he blew it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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