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QUARTERLY ESSAY 38 Power Trip

 

Correspondence

Laura Tingle

There are worlds out there that some of us don’t even know exist. One of them is called Doha. Doha is the current negotiation round of the World Trade Organisation, which commenced in November 2001. As Wikipedia notes, its objective is to lower trade barriers around the world, which allows countries to increase trade globally.

It has been stalled since 2008. And if ever there was a process stultifying in its bureaucracy and lack of progress, this would have to be it. When a colleague at the Australian Financial Review who was a Doha specialist left last year, we rather unkindly read out her first story for the paper in 2005 – which reported business alarm at the lack of Doha progress – and then read out her last story, which was almost identical.

Yet there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bureaucrats and politicians around the world who attend countless meetings about Doha every year. One such meeting took place in 2009. Australian representatives were there, but at a crucial point in the talks they informed their counterparts from other countries that they were sorry, but they were awaiting instructions from Canberra and would have to delay the talks for a while.

Word emerged that the reason for this was that the prime minister had been reading through the meeting agenda and thought he had a solution to finding a special trade instrument to solve one of the deadlocks in the discussions. Hours passed. My recollection of the story is that perhaps even a day or two passed.

All the delegates waited. Nothing happened. Finally, a call was made to the prime minister’s office to find out what was happening.

Oh, turns out he’d thought about it but didn’t have a solution after all.

A shame no one bothered to ring to say so.

Why a prime minister would bother himself with such minutiae is a mystery to most of us. But if you asked almost anybody in Canberra, stories like this about Kevin Rudd would surprise no one.

In the ruptured space left by his dramatically curtailed prime ministership, everyone is now coming out with such stories. And particularly amid the internecine warfare that has broken out as I write this piece in the first week of the election campaign, the forces that unseated Rudd are doing everything they can to demonise him to ensure he never comes back to be a pest as foreign minister.

I think often of the Doha story because it captures all the elements of the Kevin Rudd story that we have tried to come to terms with in the past three years: the vast scope of his intellectual policy nosiness; his perky determination to think that he alone can find a solution to something no one else has managed; his apparent obliviousness to the impact of his actions on other people.

I thought of it again as I stood in the freezing cold prime-ministerial courtyard on the morning of 24 June listening to Rudd outline the astonishingly long list of things his government had got done – or got started – of which he was proud.

I say “listening” advisedly. Crowds of Greek-chorus proportions tend to congregate around Parliament House on days like 24 June, and I spent that long, excruciating time staring into the large pink handbag of a rather glamorous – and tall – creature standing in front of me. Marooned behind the pink handbag, I found that those moments when a controlled, on-message Kevin Rudd kept almost losing it came out as terribly long, agonising silences, which only increased the sense of loneliness. I couldn’t see that he was surrounded by his family, who were willing him through such a difficult time.

David Marr captured all this restless intellectual energy, its chaotic after-effects and Rudd’s strange dealings with the rest of the human race in his Quarterly Essay on the political journey of Kevin Rudd.

It is a shame that so much of the reaction to Marr’s wonderfully written piece focused on “the anger question,” particularly as so much of the reaction misconstrued the point Marr made about that anger: not so much that Rudd is an angry man, but that anger at what he had witnessed in his life had shaped so much of his political agenda.

Having said that, I don’t know whether I would use anger to explain what makes Kevin Rudd tick. That’s not because I disagree with Marr’s assessment, but because Rudd remains such a mystery to me, despite having dealt with him personally since the days of COAG meetings and the Goss government.

Marr’s wonderful description of standing amid the euphoria of Suncorp Stadium on election night 2007 and of the new prime minister-elect completely missing the mood of the moment in his victory speech sums up so much about the former prime minister.

It is hard sometimes to avoid the impression that Rudd doesn’t respond to people spontaneously but rather intellectualises what it is they might expect of him and what he wants from them. A Labor MP – one of the many who had just had enough of their prime minister by 23 June – told me a few days before Julia Gillard’s coup that he had finally got in to see the prime minister after months of trying. Kevin was charming and funny, as he can be. But the MP found himself thinking, I am being managed here. 

Rudd often gave people that same impression of calculation in other ways, such as in the story Marr tells of the former prime minister talking about “those Chinese fuckers rat-fucking us.” There is something in the way Kevin Rudd swears which makes you think he feels he has to do it – that it is expected of him.

It was Paul Keating who said of Rudd that he was Labor, but not tribal Labor. Perhaps that is why his intellect told him, when confronted with the party machine – once he was in a position of power – that the way to treat the party was to treat it mean. That’s what the machine and the party would expect.

One of the stories that emerged in the wake of the coup told how the Victorian senator David Feeney and others had gone in a delegation to complain about cutbacks in MPs’ printing allowances.

Rudd reportedly told the delegation: “I don’t care what you fuckers think!” He reportedly singled out Senator Feeney with, “You can get fucked.”

Now, frankly, printing allowances are an outrage that have been used for years by both sides of politics to fund their safe-seat campaigns, and one of those good things Kevin Rudd – and John Faulkner as special minister of state – did was to cut these allowances back. So I’m sort of with Rudd on this. But was it necessary to show he was in control? Perhaps not.

When I was writing a profile in 2008 on the way Kevin Rudd ran his government, someone told me that Rudd relied on Wayne Swan for assessments of people because he had no real feel for them himself. Perhaps Swan’s preparedness to help eventually peeled away.

For me it is the strange and lonely disconnection from so many of his colleagues that is the real mystery of the former prime minister – and of course it is the thing that brought him undone. A frontbencher said to me as the 2010 election campaign began, “Laura, just remember it wasn’t the polls that were the reason Kevin was done over. It wasn’t because we were worried that he would lose. It was that we were worried he might win and then we’d be stuck with him!”

Yet for all the complaints, Labor’s first few weeks of Rudd-less government have had it showing just why he was able to develop such a dominant grip on power. Labor goes into the campaign a shallow, timid outfit that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do, except win, and not all that competent at putting in place the policies to achieve this.

 

Laura Tingle is the political editor of the Australian Financial Review.

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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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