In 2004 a senior Labor staffer was captivated by the withering opening paragraph on Billy McMahon in Paul Hasluck’s book The Chance of Politics:
I confess to a dislike of McMahon. The longer one is associated with him the deeper the contempt for him grows and I find it hard to allow him any merit. Disloyal, devious, dishonest, untrustworthy, petty, cowardly – all these adjectives have been weighed by me and I could not in truth modify or reduce any one of them in its application to him.
The staffer copied it and circulated it among some in the party with the question, “Who does this remind you of?”
He says the almost universal answer was, “Kevin Rudd.”
In the end what is astonishing about Rudd is not that he fell so brutally, it is that he rose at all. His rise is a tribute to his great gifts: his intellect and unwavering determination to succeed in the face of scant enthusiasm for his cause inside caucus. His fall is due to his large flaws and the chaos these engendered in his office and government.
Rudd is a study in contrasts, with the capacity for great generosity of spirit and small acts of meanness. Above all he was an exemplar of the gulf between intelligence and wisdom. David Marr’s timely and incisive essay details Rudd’s enormous capacity to absorb and tediously regurgitate information, and his inability to distill and transform it. He quotes a staffer as saying, “For all the effort he doesn’t come up with particularly interesting solutions to problems.”
This combination of great detail coupled with shallow analysis is evident in Rudd’s essays in the Monthly on religion and the financial crisis. The 2006 “Faith in Politics” essay set a high bar for the way a Christian should act in the world. Rudd’s model was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who demanded that injustice be confronted. Bonhoeffer asked, “Who speaks boldly to the state for those who cannot speak for themselves?” Rudd argued Christianity “must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.”
But the real purpose of the essay was political: to compare this kind of faith, his faith, with that of John Howard, and to find his opponent wanting. He was recruiting Bonhoeffer to his cause and that put high words to a low purpose.
He found another recruit in the financial crisis. In his 2009 essay on it he wrote:
The time has come, off the back of the current crisis, to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes. Neo-liberalism and the free-market fundamentalism it has produced has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy. And, ironically, it now falls to social democracy to prevent liberal capitalism from cannibalising itself.
But this was sophistry dressed up as analysis. The purpose of the essay was to consign the Coalition to political history and claim that the only valid form of government for the foreseeable future was his.
The essay excluded many inconvenient truths. Bill Clinton, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were all part of “the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years,” yet their role was airbrushed. As was the fact that the experiment has, largely, been a success in Australia. And how could a China expert write 7000 words on the global financial crisis and not mention the distortions caused by the rise of China and its fixed exchange rate?
Rudd cast himself as a philosopher king and was given to cloaking political arguments in moral garments. He called climate change “the great moral challenge of our generation.” The financial crisis was not just a market failure but “a fundamental failure of values.” So to disagree with this prime minister was not just to espouse bad policy, it was to be a bad person.
Yet if you lay down moral arguments like mines to blow up your opponents, you run the risk of stepping on one yourself. And when Rudd backed away from his government’s response to climate change, he was mortally wounded in the minefield of his own rhetoric.
David Marr concludes that anger is “the juice in the machine” and that Rudd is a man “with rage at his core, impatient rage.” I can’t see into his heart, so it is impossible to know if this is true. He certainly had a temper, but many driven people do. We can only judge him by his words and actions and I think it is true to say that he was torn apart by the contradictions at his core.
In October 2009 I received an email from the Australian’s Cameron Stewart. He was writing a feature on the way Rudd governed, at a time when he was still wildly popular. He asked how Rudd was viewed, so I called some bureaucrats and Labor MPs and senators. The results of that straw poll were published in the Weekend Australian Magazine in November 2009.
There is a view that [Rudd] has the face and bearing of a parson, and the heart and soul of a dictator. He has cowed his party, his caucus, his cabinet and the bureaucracy. He holds all the prizes, and anyone who wants to advance must pay homage to him. He bludgeons alternative opinions to death, and rules his own by both terrorising them and uniting them by kicking a hopeless foe that cannot wound him.
He survives because he has been on the right side of every argument for the last two years and is a much better politician than anyone imagined. And they say when he falls – probably a very long time from now – it will be with blinding speed as his own party rushes to tear down his statue.
The end came more swiftly than any imagined. But it was always going to end this way.
Chris Uhlmann is the political editor of ABC News 24. Previously, from August 2009 until April 2010, he was the political editor of the 7.30 Report.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 39, Power Shift.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY