QUARTERLY ESSAY 36 Australian Story



Katharine Murphy

Mungo MacCallum presents an intriguing notion. To understand Kevin Rudd’s popularity we should delve into the myths and the values of an Australia past. Another perspective can be found by rooting the prime minister firmly in Australia present. This exercise begins in a location MacCallum would more than likely approve of, a pub in Rockdale on a warm January night in 2010.

Gathered at the pub is a group of sisters and their spouses, downing pub tucker and quaffing an overly emphatic sav blanc from New Zealand. The party had pulled up to their watering hole in a people mover manufactured in Korea. They made their way past families talking in multiple languages in order to find a quieter spot. They are saying goodbye to one of their number. She and the bloke are off to Europe for a couple of years.

This group of Aussie women has Irish ancestry. They have EU passports and the convenience of long visas. All of them around the table have placed a premium on getting out and about in the world as both rite of passage and professional necessity. All – particularly the latest evacuee, just thirty years old in her designer jeans and Havaianas – see themselves as inhabitants of the globe, not exclusively of a continent at the bottom-end of nowhere.

The conversation is free-wheeling. Some of it is love and some is combat, that being the nature of sisters who enjoy the sound of their own voices. There is an examination of the merits of iPhones versus Blackberrys. The evacuee is very disappointed with her favourite director, Spike Jonze. Where the Wild Things Are is a disaster. No, it’s not, counters the eldest one, fortified by fermented grapes from the Marlborough region. You are just too young and too old to understand the underlying sensibility.

It’s late when the subject of Kevin comes up. A tween in the party rolls her eyes at this familiar and unwelcome conversational cul-de-sac. She lives in a house with political journalists and he comes up quite a bit around the dinner table. Wisely she seeks out dessert while the latest assessments are sought.

The evacuee and her bloke approve of Kevin. They are not ideological. They are not joiners or believers. Who is these days? They engage with politics to the extent they can with busy professional and social lives. They work for themselves and they see the world in terms of creative clusters. The prime minister is getting on with things. He did what he said he’d do. He seems to know what matters, global things, like climate change and security.

Whether they like him is irrelevant. This sentiment is far more distant: it is approval and respect. His modern sensibility validates theirs – the time-zone hopping, his all-nighters to hit the deadline, his general seriousness about success, the nerdy stuff on Twitter.

The young woman and her bloke are so enamoured they will give him possibly thirty whole seconds more thought before leaving the country of their birth for an unspecified period. Sure, they’ll miss their old house by the river and their friends and their scrapping family … but actually not that much because everything is connected. A sneeze at Lehman Brothers causes an earthquake in Iceland. There is always Google chat.

Like Kevin, these two are citizens of the world, but unlike Kevin they don’t have to do community cabinets in Tamworth or school visits in Port Augusta or show up at the Boxing Day Test in order to cover up their guilty secret. They can be porous and blissfully unencumbered.

The idea of nation and Australianness? Well, that’s interesting, in some abstract sense, but when did nation ever define anyone or break anyone’s heart?

Which leads me back to the problem of Mungo MacCallum. The problem with Mungo is you can’t read anything he writes without feeling the need to agree with it on the spot, and wish you’d written it yourself.

Reading Mungo is like resisting the pull of a great seducer. There is the elegant prose. Silly political pretensions are cut through. New ideas emerge and fresh perspectives are offered, given this man loves to play outsider. Even when he was inside, the perspective was always outside the box.

This time we have Rudd rendered in myths and Australian nationhood. Lulled by the undulating structure of his essay, I declare him right. I float on his argument. It’s those tropes and narratives of the past, stupid. Voters like Kevin Rudd because he is resolving the great Australian paradox. We are larrikins, but we feel most comfortable being told what to do. Of course people like him because he appeals to Australian myths and values, unobtrusively, blurring the difference with John Howard’s narrative. He’s a drover despite his soft white hands and his predilection for German theologians and acronyms. He is Kevin from Queensland, that most parochial of places, and he is here to help.

Except … I shake myself vigorously to impose a discipline. Is that the person you see? Is there a Eureka! moment in here?

No, there isn’t, I’m afraid. Here I am, one of Mungo’s cursed “commentariat,” I expect. One of the lazy knockers of Canberra’s parliamentary press gallery, “bewildered” by Kevin Rudd, unable to see the true picture. 

But MacCallum’s essay reads to me like a thesis in search of a subject. Even as the technique imposes coherence and soothes and challenges the reader, he seems to know he’s pushing it in places. As thoughtful and compelling as it is as a piece of argument to ponder over the summer before a federal election, for me this picture doesn’t settle Rudd’s protean political personality.

“For all his nerdiness and prolixity, there is something very Australian about him,” Mungo tells us. I’m not sure that declaration would pass the front-bar test – not in the Australia of leather-skinned men who brush flies from their faces and talk without moving their lips.

Which Australia are we talking about? Rudd is without question a creature of the Australia of Converse high-tops and iPods and double degrees in international relations, but I can’t see him fashioning the 2020 Summit on the sidelines of the Eureka Stockade.

Reading Mungo’s essay I have a strange and satisfying sense of the Kevin Rudd rendered in the pages of Quarterly Essay straining impatiently against the implied weight of historical comparison – this relentless creature, who can’t settle for a moment in the present, having to endure like Gulliver in Lilliput, lying prone in restraints as others conduct their worthy anthropology.

Kevin Rudd is always chasing the future, that much we can say. His boredom with the here and now would offend people if he weren’t so adept at masking it.

When he declared peace in the history wars in 2009, the declaration was a clarion call to move on, rather than a piece of nifty political or intellectual positioning. Saying sorry to indigenous Australians, as profound as that moment was, was hurry up and move on as well; move on to solving social and economic disadvantage. Move on. Always move on.

The thing that is fascinating about Rudd is how far he has eclipsed his origins, how far he has travelled from the suffocating provincialism of the Queensland of his childhood. He is still running from it into something bigger, with all his ambition to be in the next place, in the next conversation, on the next plane to the next time zone, in the next hospital or on the next street walk doing the retail politics.

MacCallum is right when he concludes the prime minister is an enlarger. With his compulsive restlessness he cannot be anything else.

It’s been fun for Mungo to think of Rudd in an Australian tradition, droving his way through marginal seats, giving us back our “Lucky Country,” winning over hearts and minds in the process. It’s been constructive, too, that discipline. Get off the Rudd bus and look back to achieve a new perspective; look at him from another angle.

But I can’t position him in that space. The vexatious bugger, he just won’t stay there. The key to Rudd’s success with the voters, I fear, is far more prosaic. Boring even. Kevin Rudd’s popularity is notable, certainly, but not all that mysterious, given voters took a significant chance in 2007 by putting him in the Lodge. So far he has made good on their investment by being competent and methodical, and by fine-tuning the country to reflect the current mood.

He has used the global economic crisis to his advantage politically; and the government was assisted not only by the early warning of impending disaster but also by sound policy advice and by a budget bequeathed in good order, which allowed scope for a textbook Keynesian response.

The government’s focus on keeping the probable rise in unemployment to a minimum was as much, in my view, about learning from the mistakes of the Keating government in the early 1990s as it was a genuflection to the importance of jobs and a living wage in the Australian social compact.

Most of all, Kevin Rudd has been assisted by a bruised and riven Opposition, which has given a government-in-training space to learn its craft without significant obstruction, except of course in the Senate, and that drama will play out to its conclusion in 2010.

See? Prosaic. I did warn you.

Perhaps, given this mundane reality, the only answer is to embrace MacCallum’s trope of Rudd as a descendant of characters in the Australian legend, from the bushman and the drover to the shearers of Barcaldine. It is far more interesting. 

But none of us should lose heart. Kevin Rudd is still in many respects a blank canvas. This history is still being written. He plays politics defensively enough for voters to have ample room to project their own aspirations onto him. Unlike John Howard, Kevin Rudd does wait for the times to suit him; at his sharpest, he has the dexterity to adjust to suit the times.

He will go on evolving despite our attempts to explain him and render him explicable, this slave to the future, this international man of mystery, this Twitter nerd, this man in a blazing bloody hurry.


Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent for the Age. She was appointed chief of staff of the Australian Financial Review’s Canberra bureau in late 2001 and served in that role for more than three years before joining the Australian in 2004.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 36, Australian Story. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 37, What's Right?.


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