No Love Lost Between Labor and Rudd

28 February 2012

In yesterday's ballot for the Labor Party's 102-strong legislative caucus, freshly resigned Minister of Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd lost spectacularly to Prime Minister Julia Gillard—31 to 71 votes. Australia's favorite politician and most popular prime minister in history, a man who gets mobbed like a rock star on the street, left dejected for the back bench. How did Mr. Rudd become so loathed in his own party?

Even in the rough-and-tumble world of Australian politics, last week had to go down as one of the worst. It began with a leaked YouTube video of Mr. Rudd swearing profusely and slamming his desk. Then senior Labor Party ministers complained about Mr. Rudd's relentless stealth campaign to seek revenge on Ms. Gillard, who had knifed him during his first term as prime minister in June 2010. Next Mr. Rudd appeared to have pre-empted a move against him by resigning as foreign minister while abroad. That preceded a contest for the ruling party's leadership with enough conniving and betrayal to make Lady Macbeth blush.

Meanwhile, authority is draining away from the prime minister as if from an open wound. A year of mounting mistrust over her carbon tax back flip is destroying what little credibility she has left. Ms. Gillard's approval rating is only 26% and her minority government trails the center-right Coalition by double digits in opinion polls. Even those who rally around Ms. Gillard do so with little hope—theirs is a contemporary charge of the Light Brigade.

Mr. Rudd's fall from grace has little to do with Ms. Gillard and everything to do with Mr. Rudd. The 54-year-old Mandarin-speaking former diplomat has two weaknesses: He has never been much liked by anyone who's worked closely with him and he presided over a dysfunctional government and unprincipled policy agenda from December 2007 to June 2010.

Start with the personal. Mark Latham, the former Labor leader and now a widely read columnist, reflects the views of many of Mr. Rudd's colleagues when he says: "Those who know him best like him least. And those who say they like him have never actually met him." Nearly everyone accepts that "Heavvie Kevvie" is somewhat boring and a bit nerdy. (How else to describe someone who refers to himself in the third person as "K. Rudd" and who utters cringe-inducing Australianisms like "Happy Little Vegemite" and "fair shake of the sauce bottle"?)

But his colleagues prefer stronger adjectives—abrasive, arrogant, aloof and autocratic. In the past week, one member of parliament called him a "psychopath"; one senior minister derided him as "a complete and utter fraud"; several others refused to serve under him; and even his former senior mental health adviser has warned that "this man is not fit for prime minister."

Then there is his record. During his two-and-a-half years as prime minister, he espoused so many different positions, often repeatedly and stridently, that he left virtually everyone with the impression that his arguments were always suspect. Ms. Gillard is widely detested across the nation for legislating a carbon tax she pledged not to introduce. But Mr. Rudd flipped and flopped with the best of them.

This is a man who once defined himself as an "economic conservative," but once in office took a leftist and interventionist approach to almost every economic issue he addressed. A man who pledged to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, but ended John Howard's tough stance against people-smugglers that boosted public confidence in large-scale and non-discriminatory legal immigration. A man who claimed climate change was "the great moral challenge of our time," but dropped the evangelical language along with an emissions trading scheme after the Copenhagen debacle changed the political climate at home.

Such have been the twists and turns of his philosophical journey that it is impossible to know what Mr. Rudd thinks. Add to this that he ran an utterly dysfunctional and chaotic cabinet. By most accounts, he regularly treated staff and public servants with rudeness and contempt. He silenced internal critics and punished those against whom he held a grudge. And he held up vital decisions while he vacillated over policy and procedure. No wonder his colleagues overwhelmingly rejected him (again).

Much of the brouhaha of last week won't die down anytime soon. Although Mr. Rudd has been relegated to the back bench, he will dog his nemesis effectively. For her part, more than a few of Ms. Gillard's own supporters think the prime minister is among the walking dead. Meanwhile, many Labor figures are fretting and wailing that Australia's oldest party, which has experienced three splits in the past hundred years, is tearing itself up again.

As the government heads for the mother of all hidings in the next election due in 2013, party hard heads will cast about in vain for someone else who can stymie Mr. Rudd's next challenge while blocking the rise of opposition leader Tony Abbott and his conservatives. If the last week is anything to go by, they'll struggle to find a cure for its deep-seated ills.

Tom Switzer teaches political history at the University of Sydney and is editor of the Spectator Australia.

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