Annabel Crabb

What would a normal person do, after being tipped out of his job, deserted by his colleagues and forced to relinquish his life’s dream, all in the space of a few days and with the hardest bits broadcast live to a global television audience?

What would you do?

Normal answers to this question might include: Fall apart. Clean the house. Experiment with brandy-for-breakfast. Consider buying something off Demtel. Send forty-eight unsolicited pizzas to the home address of your principal oppressor.

Normal answers to this question do not include: Attend Question Time. Commence a campaign to be appointed Australian foreign minister. Jump on a plane bound for the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. Stage a grip-and-grin with Ban Ki-moon.

As David Marr demonstrates in his Quarterly Essay, Kevin Rudd does not answer to the same gods as ordinary humans. Marr’s subject was Rudd’s atypical relationship with power, but we can learn as much from the former prime minister’s relinquishment of power as we did from watching him exert it. The same themes dominate: Utter indefatigability. Physical stamina. A certain robotic imperviousness to the reality at hand. A calm conviction, on the part of the subject, of his natural centrality to events.

My favourite bit in Marr’s essay is not the celebrated “rage” thesis; nor is it any of the essay’s enlightening material concerning Mr Rudd’s past professional endeavours. My favourite passage is on page nineteen, and it goes like this:

Marge Rudd drove him more than a thousand miles that year to speak. Eliminated in May from the Lions Club’s “Youth of the Year Quest” in Brisbane, he then triumphed in the Jaycees’ “Youth Speaks for Australia” competition, winning watches, sets of encyclopaedias, a pile of books on ancient history for the school library and praise from the Chronicle: “Once again it’s well done Kevin.” After the local finals in tiny Biloela and the state finals at Clifton, he flew over to Perth a few weeks after his seventeenth birthday and lost. How did he respond to defeat? “He’d studied Caesar’s troubles in the Gallic wars,” says [former teacher] Fae Barber laconically. “It stood him in good stead.”

This passage tells you just about all you need to know about congenital Rudd-ism. There’s something about Marr’s account of that juvenile oratory crusade that is priceless; perhaps it is the mental image of a young Kevin in pressed shorts grimly accumulating volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, perhaps it is the exquisitely resigned tone of that “Once again it’s well done Kevin” headline from the Chronicle.

To read it is to picture, irresistibly, the Chronicle’s editor; a middle-aged bloke, one assumes, trying stolidly to collate livestock prices while weathering serial visits from Kevin, armed with important messages about the Gallic wars.

That editor, anonymous to us now, was the first of many editors to experience the rare comet that was – is – Kevin Rudd. One hopes that the young Rudd’s philosophical identification with the trials of Caesar has survived into middle age.

Whatever you think of the man – and the people paid to monitor this stuff reliably report that millions of Australians who liked Kevin07 as recently as a year ago could not bear him by April this year – you can’t help but marvel at the brutality of the execution.

One is amply persuaded, not least by Marr’s essay, that Kevin Rudd in office tended to be high-handed and isolationist; convinced, to an extent that proved fatal to the establishment of any sort of properly productive Cabinet, that he and only he could be trusted to make decisions of moment.

And there is little doubt that Mr Rudd’s solution to the problem of climate change – “the greatest moral challenge of our time” – was so ensnarled by compromise when it surfaced as to be nearly unrecognisable from the clean lines of his campaign rhetoric.

But consider the mechanics of Mr Rudd’s ousting. Electoral forensics trace the collapse in the former prime minister’s public support back to April, when his government’s decision to abandon its emissions trading scheme was first telegraphed to the Australian people by way of a leak to the Sydney Morning Herald

We know now that this decision was one against which Mr Rudd had been holding out internally ever since the failed Copenhagen talks, in the face of strong pressure from his deputy, Julia Gillard, and his treasurer, Wayne Swan. Having succumbed to them and relinquished the emissions trading scheme, Mr Rudd’s public standing then eroded to the point at which it became Julia Gillard’s lugubrious duty to assassinate him.

The above is a simplistic view, of course; it’s always more complicated than that. But you can sort of understand why Mr Rudd might be annoyed.

In the unfairly intimate glimpse the nation was afforded of Kevin Rudd on the day of his dethronement, it became clear exactly where the warmth in his life comes from. Not from his colleagues, barely any of whom bestirred themselves even to pretend to regret his passing, but from his sensible wife, Thérèse Rein, and three unnervingly normal offspring, who gathered about him with every appearance of good humour despite the dreadful circumstances.

How were the colleagues so completely estranged from the man who so recently won them a strong election result? Marr’s essay gives us a lot of good pointers here. As a prime minister, Mr Rudd was not especially available to his comrades. And some of his decisions actively estranged them, like the decision to reduce their allowances and the repeated appointment of Liberals to high-profile jobs.

These gave offence, not so much because of the money involved (although, of course, that was a factor) but because they gave the impression that the Labor leader was more anxious to align himself with commonly held prejudices (politicians have all got their snouts in the trough) than he was to stand his ground and defend his colleagues.

In his own way, Kevin Rudd created in the minds of his MPs the same impression that Coalition MPs had of Malcolm Turnbull towards the end of his leadership: that their leader put his own interests before those of the party as a whole.


Annabel Crabb’s latest book is Rise of the Ruddbot. She is the author of Quarterly Essay 34, Stop at Nothing, and the ABC’s chief online political writer.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 38, Power Trip. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 39, Power Shift.


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