‘I was elected by the Australian people as the prime minister,” Kevin Rudd said in his tearful speech after being deposed as prime minister by his own party in June 2010, to be replaced by Julia Gillard. Except he wasn’t. Rather, the Australian people in 2007 elected a parliament in which the Australian Labor party (ALP), of which Rudd was leader, had a majority of seats. And thus, as ever in the Westminster system, it was the majority of parliamentarians who decided Rudd would be prime minister. And then that he wouldn’t.
But Rudd’s confusion was also that of the Australian people, and they viewed his sacking almost as a regicide, a view powerfully helped along by the new Labor regime’s refusal to say exactly why they had replaced him, allowing Rudd’s subtle rebuilding of himself as a martyr to faceless men and factions.
Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, was a new type of politician who had built his power base and appeal through the manufacture of a 21st-century celebrity. He rose to national prominence not so much with policy, but appearances on a commercial breakfast TV programme. He used social media and light entertainment radio and TV to advance himself. His support base wasn’t built in the party, but on his polling figures.
The 2007 Labor campaign was the most presidential in Australian history, with a slogan – Kevin07 – exceeded in its banality only by its success. Labor won in a landslide that ended 11 years of Liberal (conservative) rule that saw the sitting prime minister, John Howard, lose his own seat.
Change the government and you change the country, Howard had been fond of saying. And at first it seemed that way, with the Kyoto protocols being signed and a historic apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations. A much praised stimulus package was delivered using the surplus built up under Howard to help Australia ride through the worst of what elsewhere became a recession. Rudd’s approval ratings were now some of the highest in Australian history.
But then Rudd’s government stalled and nothing much seemed to change at all. Rumours surfaced of the increasing bypassing of cabinet, of government being ever more out of Rudd’s office, where a team of young minders wielded more power than senior cabinet ministers.
When Rudd, who had described climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation”, dumped his own emissions trading scheme, his polling collapsed in weeks and his end became inevitable. His party dumped him, his successor Gillard went to an election shortly afterwards, fared badly, and cobbled together a minority government.
Though her government’s legislative record is much more substantial than Rudd’s, Gillard has often proven wooden and hamfisted as prime minister, struggling with the public’s sense of her as an illegitimate leader, and she has polled badly. In recent weeks, talk of a leadership challenge reached a crescendo with senior ministers accusing Rudd of destabilising the government.
And so last Wednesday Rudd resigned as foreign minister in the US at 1.30am, perfectly timed for the Australian evening news bulletins going to air half an hour later. He returned to Australia talking of democracy and people power, as though he were Nelson Mandela coming off Robben Island.
Former Labor leader Mark Latham once said of Kevin Rudd that he was only liked by people who have never met him. Now the people who had met Rudd told the people who hadn’t what they thought. A political battle of savagery hitherto unknown to Australia erupted, redolent of the viciousness with which US presidential primaries are waged.
Everyone from Rudd’s most senior cabinet colleagues to his speechwriters lined up to say how bad tempered, megalomanic and dysfunctional Rudd was as prime minister, of how his office had descended in chaos and paralysis. Senior minister Stephen Conroy said Rudd ‘had contempt for the cabinet, contempt for the cabinet members, contempt for the caucus.’
By Friday it was clear Rudd would lose. He took to referring to himself in the third person, more traditionally the domain of fading rock stars, as “one K Rudd”, his Twitter moniker. In his messianic appeals for the people to campaign for him on Facebook he began to sound more Eva Peron than potential prime minister.
By Sunday the absurdity of the event was best captured by reports from Darwin that Harry the Psychic Crocodile, successful picker of three Darwin Cup winners, had been presented with posters of Gillard and Rudd, each festooned with chunks of meat. By sinking his teeth into her image Harry selected Julia Gillard as victor.
The following morning Gillard comprehensively beat Rudd in the leadership ballot, 71 to 31 votes.
It may be that the Rudd challenge will prove the making of Gillard. There has always been something oddly Elizabethean about Gillard – her ambition, her cold and inexorable will, her determination to stitch up whatever deal is needed. And she has never looked more formidable than in her steely resolve to take on Rudd and her obvious determination to destroy him.
But of the once mighty ALP, its future, its compass, who could say? For Gillard seems to stand for no more than Rudd. Neither supporters nor detractors of Tony Abbott, the Liberal leader, are in any doubt about what he believes, but of the ALP no one any longer seems to know, other than it being the sorry vehicle of the vendettas and ambitions of the despicable and the pitiful. What did it say about the ALP that it once selected a character as flawed as it now seems Rudd was as its leader?
And what did it say about the Australian media that they knew, they now say, of Rudd’s failings as prime minister but didn’t reveal them; that they knew Rudd leaked against his own party during the 2010 election but didn’t say; and that it was they who fed voraciously on his destabilisation of his own government, but never said so explicitly?
Was Australia’s Westminster system – increasingly run on an American model, but without American checks and balances, and where the British conventions of parliament, executive and party had greatly corroded – still the best to ensure democracy strengthened and grew, to check the excesses of executive power; or had it grown ineffective and in need of reform?
But the next tweet on the next leadership crisis was already being reported, and the only questions being asked were those that a crocodile would answer with its teeth.