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In Search of Kevin Rudd
Chris Saliba is one of Webdiary’s active citizen journalists, having contributed numerous articles and book reviews over the past three years. His Webdiary archive is here, and he also has his own website. In his previous article, Chris subjected the Federal Government’s new citizenship test to critical analysis. Now he applies the analytical tools to the Kevin Rudd phenomenon.
In Search of Kevin Rudd, by Chris Saliba
With only weeks to go until the election I thought I better pull my finger out and try to learn something about Kevin Rudd. I must admit, Rudd’s winning the Labor leadership for me was a bit of a bummer. His fastidious personality and love of detail seemed perfect for some high brow portfolio, but I couldn’t imagine the public flocking to him as leader. (Boy was I wrong.)
Watching Rudd being interviewed on Lateline was like staring at a human metronome – never missing a beat. I wasn’t even sure that he needed me in the room watching him, such was his self-assurance. Listening to his smoothly modulated speech, his words marching like well disciplined soldiers over numerous policy terrains, resistance seemed useless.
In search of Kevin Rudd I read his maiden speech, his two Monthly essays and the two biographies that were published half way through the year. They gave me a pretty clear picture of his thinking, and a kaleidoscopic portrait of his personality.
How much of his political thinking he would put into action if he became PM remains to be tested. How much of his personality would impact on his prime ministership remains as mysterious as his penchant for secrecy and control.
Rudd’s political ‘values’, to use the current vernacular, spring from the perceived shabby treatment both his parents suffered from their community and the state, and ‘the bleak charity of the time’ that the Rudds survived on after his father, Bert, died tragically at the relatively young age of 50 after a car accident. Rudd lays the blame for his father’s death with the hospital that treated him. After his father’s death his mother was kicked off the farm that his father had worked for some 13 years.
‘It made me think,’ Rudd said in his 1998 maiden speech. ‘that a decent social security system designed to protect the weak was no bad thing. It made me think that the provision of decent public housing to the poor was the right thing to do. When I saw people unnecessarily die in the appallingly under funded Queensland hospital system of the 1960s and 1970s it made me think that the provision of a decent universal health system should be one of the first responsibilities of the state.’
In his maiden speech Rudd sees the state in stark terms of power. Politicians hold that power to either effect positive change, or for their own political ends.
‘Politics is about power. It is about the power of the state. It is about the power of the state as applied to individuals, the society in which they live and the economy in which they work. Most critically, our responsibility in this parliament is how that power is used: whether for the benefit of the few or the many.’
As a wielder of state power, Rudd sees his responsibilities as regulating markets, fostering an environment that supports education, and a positive engagement with Asia. On the last subject he is quite sophisticated, displaying a rarely seen objectivity on the subject of Asia in this country. (Check out Alison Broinowski’s fascinating book, About Face: Asian accounts of Asia, on Asian attitudes to Australia to find out more.) Can you imagine John Howard saying the following?
‘When the region looks at us, it is often through the deep cultural prism of their respective national experiences of European colonisation over a long period of time, experiences that were for them almost universally negative. When you add to that particular overlay the White Australia Policy and the fact that the White Australia Policy has been taught in the region’s school history texts for several generations, it becomes easier to understand why our place in this region can sometimes be delicate.’
Rudd first Monthly essay, Faith In Politics, illuminated the politician’s religious beliefs, one of his key inspirational figures, and how Christian faith, especially the ‘muscular Christianity’ of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, can positively influence questions of state and society. Rudd even goes so far as to conflate Christian and Labor values. Chifley’s phrase, ‘light on the hill’, we learn is borrowed from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
‘A Christian perspective, informed by a social gospel or Christian socialist tradition, should not be rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere. If the churches are barred from participating in the great debates about the values that ultimately underpin our society, our economy and our polity, then we have reached a very strange place indeed.’
The choice of Bonhoeffer does seem an extreme Christian example for Australian politics on which to test itself. (Bonhoeffer was murdered by the Nazis for his association with a group plotting Hitler's assassination.)
Rudd says that the ‘intensity of Bonhoeffer’s gaze’ is needed to enable Australian churches to be able to speak ‘truthfully, prophetically and incisively in defiance of the superficiality of formal debate in contemporary Western politics.’
Rudd’s second essay, Howard’s Brutopia, develops a familiar theme to maturity. Howard has moved the country too far too the right, and it urgently needs to be pulled back. Ironically, the free-market ideology of the Howard government is also helping to destroy its traditional conservative social values. Everywhere society now serves the market, instead of the market serving society. This fault in right-wing thinking, its free market wing devouring its traditional social values, Rudd sees as a great opportunity for Labor to argue a new program that tilts the balance back in favour of ‘the family, community and society which markets ultimately serve.’
The most clever part of this essay is Rudd’s adoption of traditional conservative values for modern Labor, shrewdly painting Howard as nothing more than a reckless radical.
‘Classical conservatism, both in the UK and Australia, has always expressed reservations about the impact of unrestrained market capitalism. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, argued that society should be seen as an organic whole, based on reciprocal rights and obligations.’
Having rejected the idea that Friedrich Hayek, the hugely influential writer on free-markets, should be considered the apogee of conservative thought and values, Rudd writes a brilliant paragraph aligning himself and modern Labor with a succession of Liberal politicians.
‘Previous generations of the Australian Right have been variously dominated by old-style conservatives or social liberals: Deakin, Menzies, Fraser, Peacock and others. All supported the welfare state as a form of social insurance and an institutional corrective against market fundamentalism. This partly explains why, in the period of Deakinite Liberalism, it was possible for a number of Right-Left alliances to be formed to secure the passage of what can be described (in the context of the times) as progressive legislation. The Harvester Judgement of 1907, which legislated a minimum wage based on Justice Henry Bourne Higgins' determination of a living wage "for human beings living in a civilised community" - defined not by market forces but rather from an entirely different values-base - is a case in point.’
Howard’s Brutopia seems to be deeply influenced by David McKnight’s Beyond Right and Left, a book which argued that the ideologies of the left and right had exhausted themselves, and what we needed now was a more centred politics that rejected ideologies and depended rather on common sense. The essay quotes McKnight extensively. Rudd takes that book one step further though by positioning himself as a classical conservative.
Here may lay the secret of Rudd’s extraordinary success: by dropping all left / right baggage and presenting himself as a politician who makes decisions based on common sense, not on petty politics or by indulging in culture wars, Rudd can present himself as the voice of reason and balance. Howard, by contrast, comes off as a dangerous radical thumbing his nose at classical conservative values.
‘As John Howard takes his party further to the Right in key policy areas such as industrial relations, the opportunity arises for Labor to reclaim the centre of Australian politics, thereby reframing the national political debate. Labor also now has the opportunity to form fresh political alliances with other groupings alienated by this new form of market fundamentalism, which is blind and indifferent to its social consequences.’
There are two biographies available of Kevin Rudd. Read together, they give a Jekyll and Hyde portrait of Rudd. For the world there is the fresh faced Dorian Gray of Australian politics, yet closeted away is a different, more complex portrait.
Biographies of political aspirants always have that strangely unfinished feel about them. Their subjects are necessarily works in progress, and so their biographies come across as premature. How many similar biographies of failed leaders now litter the dustbins of history?
Nicholas Stuart is a former ABC journalist and now columnist for the Canberra Times. Stuart ran into numerous troubles getting people to be interviewed on the record, and so most of the people providing comments on Rudd provide them on the condition of anonymity. Early in the biography we are told that Rudd had instructed people not to speak to Nicholson.
Nor would Rudd be interviewed for the book, then suddenly at the last minute, as the book was sent to the publisher, Rudd’s office called, flirting with the idea of now being interviewed. A game of cat and mouse ensued, but no interview with Rudd materialised. The author makes it quite clear by Rudd’s behaviour that he is very controlling of his media image and controlling of those around him. For a public figure, there is a lot of secrecy.
The overall impression the Stuart biography gives of Rudd is of a very astute and hardworking man, someone who through sheer determination and a refusal to accept failure willed himself into a brilliant, shimmering success, this against a tough and mean upbringing.
As an example of Rudd’s extraordinary work ethic, he managed to turn his marginal seat of Griffith around by his relentless working of the electorate. In 1998 he won the seat by 3,858 votes. By the 2004, he romped it in on 13,898 votes. This stunning result was not handed on a silver platter; Rudd worked his tush off to achieve it.
Stuart spends some time concentrating on key parts of the Rudd mythology. In the main these are the early death of his father, Bert, and his subsequent treatment at the Royal Brisbane Hospital (he blames the hospital for Bert’s death). Following his father’s death Rudd claims his mother was kicked off the farm that Bert had worked for 13 years, plunging the family into destitution.
These key events, as noted above, had an enormous impact on the young Rudd, and went a long way to forming what would later become the man and politician.
Yet memory is a strange thing, and emotion can and often does colour ‘the facts’ of what happened in our personal histories. This is a controversial point with Rudd. Sunday program journalist Ellen Fanning investigated Bert Rudd’s death, digging up the coroner’s report. The report however didn’t show up anything untoward. Rudd may have become a Labor politician, Fanning suggested, due to a misunderstanding.
Then Kerry-Anne Walsh from the Sydney Sun-Herald investigated Rudd’s claim of being evicted from the farm by owner Aubrey Low. Low’s children hotly disputed Rudd’s eviction story, saying their father was a decent and honourable man.
In a bizarre twist, however, it was the story behind this story that became the real shocker. On 3 March 2007, Rudd’s young press secretary rang Kerry-Anne Walsh, swearing a blue streak. The story was held over until a week later, to double check the facts. Kevin Rudd himself now called the paper’s editor, Simon Dulhunty, and went ‘ballistic’, insisting the story was not to be run.
An even more intriguing story about Rudd and media manipulation came in April 2007, when the Sunrise program tried to stage a fake dawn service at the battlefield of Long Tan in Vietnam because it would better fit into their television schedules. The idea was junked after veterans voiced opposition. Rudd denied any involvement with the fake dawn service, then when it was revealed that his office indeed was aware of the plans, Rudd blamed his staff and ‘counselled’ them. Rudd soon ditched his regular segment on the show.
Nicholas does his best to balance the good with the bad in Rudd’s character. There’s a very telling quote from ANU professor Hugh White, about how good Rudd is with his family.
‘The relationship they had was very impressive. You really learn something about a person when you see them with their family. He related to his children, always dragging them into the discussion as active participants. Considering that our discussion was probably about strategic affairs – not one of the most interesting subject-areas for many people – it was fantastic to watch him challenging and encouraging them in conversation. He wasn’t condescending at all.’
And on Rudd’s knowledge of foreign affairs White had nothing but glowing praise: ‘His intellectual engagement was unparalleled.’
On the other hand, Queensland academic Scott Prasser is highly critical of Rudd’s time as key adviser to Wayne Goss, Queensland Premier. After explaining that Rudd was the Mr Fix-It of the Goss government, the de-facto power behind the throne, Prasser notes ‘Executive government control, secrecy, and manipulation of appointment processes remained embedded during this time.’
There’s a fair amount of background noise in this biography by people who are not overly fond of Rudd. The general criticism is that he is an amoral hypocrite who treats people shabbily.
Over all I found Nicholas Stuart’s biography to be an intelligent, balanced and well researched portrait. There’s no rancour from Stuart at having to deal with such an obstructive subject, no opportunities taken to launch pot shots. The tone of Stuart’s biography is a search for understanding of a complex subject.
Robert Macklin is a journalist, novelist and former press secretary for Sir John McEwen, leader of the Country Party and Australian prime minister for 23 days. Macklin was fortunate in getting full access to Rudd, his family and colleagues. The list of big names that co-operated with Macklin is quite impressive.
This is for the most part a sympathetic biography, with very little shading. There are large swathes of quotation, with Rudd giving fireside like chats. A lot of the book reads like a Sunday supplement profile. The interview material from Rudd’s siblings provide a kind of Norman Rockwell-like picture of Rudd growing up. The quotes from famous diplomats and politicians appear like testimonials.
For example, there’s a quote from his wife Therese about how many Play School videos they watched: ‘We watched more tapes of Play School than you can imagine. Kevin can sing in tune and I can sing out of tune every Play School song from the 1980s.’ You get the picture.
The book ends with another quote from Therese, in the same cute vein: ‘After twenty-five years, I still can’t get him to put his socks in the basket.’
That’s not to say any of this is bad. Much of its interest lies in how Rudd wants to present himself, and with Macklin, Rudd gives much interesting interview material that is more personal in nature. It’s a relief to read Rudd talk away from the confrontational style that is usual in political discourse.
This biography is also worth reading for the extra detail that the Nicholas Stuart bio doesn’t have, even though it is information that has not been dug up by the author, but rather handed over by his interviewees.
There’s a fabulous quote from Jason Koutsoukis from The Age about how John Howard rings his pollster Mark Textor every day for an update. Apparently there are 63 topics that Howard tracks. This material is then developed and then Howard sends out his front line lieutenants onto the attack. You wonder what all this stupid talk of leadership is about when modern day pollies live and die by opinion polls.
In light of the recent controversy over foreign affairs spokesman Robert McClelland's speech on the death penalty (McClelland received 'counseling' from Rudd over the matter), it was interesting to read the following:
‘I believe the death penalty is repugnant at every level and we have a responsibility not just to speak out against it when it applies to Australians, but to argue uncompromisingly that the time has come for the world to put an end to this medieval practice.’
I found this to be quite a seductive biography. It’s nicely written, and has a jovial, avuncular feel to it. Yet it is only one side of the story. It’s Rudd in his Sunday best. If you want to travel to the dark side, then read Nicholas Stuart’s book.
Stuart was the outsider looking in, whereas Robert Macklin is an insider, almost a court writer. If he isn’t one already, I feel he’s probably soon on the way to becoming the official writer of the Rudd years.
I can’t really favour one book over the other. Strangely enough, I think they should be read pretty much together.
What’s the take away from all of this? Rudd as a young boy was clearly traumatised by the poverty and bad times of his upbringing. The state virtually killed his father through the incompetent running of its hospitals (according to the Rudd version of events). The social safety net wasn’t broad enough to catch his widowed mother, and she found herself cast aside, forced to survive on the ‘bleak charity of the time’.
Through these transformative early experiences, Rudd’s political program was to follow. Intellectually, Rudd believes the state should use its powers to protect the weak and the vulnerable. The Howard years have shrunk and weakened the fabric of the social safety net. Rudd’s political program is to strengthen and broaden this social safety net, to pull government back from the right and more to centre.
As Rudd proclaimed himself in his Howard’s Brutopia essay, ‘The time has come to recapture the centre.’
Where that ‘centre’ will eventually balance itself out should a Rudd government be elected is anyone’s guess.