Christian Kerr: Is Labor's Kevin Rudd on the verge of one of the greatest political comebacks in history?
Christian Kerr is a senior reporter with The Australian newspaper and a former adviser to two Australian Liberal federal cabinet ministers and a state premier. Follow him on Twitter.
At the moment there is only one certainty in Australian politics – that an election will be held on September 7. Just six weeks ago, things were very different indeed. Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister, and her minority Labor government were doomed, with polling putting support for the party at its lowest point in 80 years, and Liberal leader Tony Abbott was guaranteed to be our next premier. The only question unresolved was the size of his majority.
Then Kevin Rudd returned as our Prime Minister. Rudd is Prime Minister for two reasons; his bastardry and mastery of breakfast television. Just as his skills set is unusual, Rudd himself is an unusual choice for a leader of a political party: a nerdy, moon-faced, Mandarin-speaking former diplomat turned senior bureaucrat.
His diplomatic career never progressed that far. His time in the bureaucracy was more successful. He rose to become director-general of the office of cabinet under a Labor government in his home state of Queensland. But his nickname from the time, “Dr Death”, speaks volumes about how he was regarded.
Rudd still may have been in opposition, but he also had a platform that commanded respect as Australia prepared for involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, dealt with an Al-Qaeda affiliate in its northern neighbour, Indonesia, and a wave of asylum seekers arriving on its shores by boat. Then Rudd got doubly lucky. A good but scarcely scintillating media performer, he had started peppering his press conferences with hokey and hackneyed Australianisms. Yet when the bookish Rudd said “fair suck of the sauce bottle”, voters did not laugh at him. It was so ridiculous they laughed with him.
Rudd gained a weekly slot on the top-rating breakfast TV show, Sunrise, on the strength of his vaudeville. And Sunrise also let him show that while he might be a nerd, he was still a man. In 2006, Sunrise got Rudd and Liberal Joe Hockey to walk the Kokoda Track, a malaria-ridden trail that stretches over the mountains and fetid tropical valleys of Papua New Guinea that, in 1942, when the Japanese army was on Australia’s doorstep, was the sole supply route to the frontline and a site of fearful fighting.
The stunt was a ratings winner for Sunrise. It also delivered for Rudd. Polls put his popularity well ahead of his leader’s. The Rudd publicity machine went into overdrive. Rudd, a practicing Anglican, reached out to Christians with an essay on religion in politics. He even wooed free market think tanks and spoke at their forums. He continued his Sunrise appearances with Hockey. He was everywhere – including in the job of leader of the opposition by the end of the year.
The Sunrise appearances continued into 2007, an election year, until an angry prime minister John Howard told Hockey to stop giving Rudd publicity and end the double act. Howard had much to be angry about. The 2004 election had given him control of both house of parliament, the first such result since 1977. In a massive strategic blunder, he used his new power to push through a package of industrial relations reforms that alienated a key support base, blue-collar conservatives.
Howard had also been wary of signing up to the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions. Drought is constant reality in Australia, the world’s driest continent. Rudd skilfully turned a dry spell into a consequence of government inaction on climate change, peeling away more voters from Howard. As the most presidential campaign Australia has ever seen began, Rudd was rebranded as “Kevin07”. The Labor Party was barely mentioned. As Howard, 25 years earlier one of the Liberal Party’s pioneering dries, tried to hold onto power by spending more and more, Rudd declared himself an economic conservative.
He won. Not by a landslide, but with a good enough majority. In a few months rich in symbolism, he ratified Kyoto and apologised to “the stolen generations”, the thousands of Aboriginal Australians removed from their families by well-meaning but misguided missionaries and social workers as recently as the 1970s. Then the global financial crisis hit. Economic conservatism went out the window. Australia, thanks largely to Howard and the two Labor prime ministers who preceded him, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – and thanks to China’s insatiable demand for iron ore from our west and coal from the country’s east to smelt it with – did not fall into recession.
But the GFC showed what a hopeless manager Rudd was. Billions were wasted in unnecessarily stimulus spending, including an environmentally-friendly home insulation scheme that lead to the deaths of several young, unskilled installers and fires sparked by botched jobs done by cowboy firms. Even more money was wasted on massively overpriced school facilities. The more policies went awry, the more Rudd micromanaged. Rudd infuriated the bureaucracy, the defence forces, his party – and the public.
His polling fell as horror stories of prime ministerial tantrums emerged. He had demanded a hairdryer while visiting troops in Afghanistan. He had reduced a Royal Australian Air Force flight attendant to tears when she had served him the incorrect meal. When Rudd announced a new mining tax – a tax on the source of wealth that had powered the nation through the GFC – without consultation in May 2010, it all fell apart for him.
On the night of June 23 2010, his deputy Julia Gillard and a delegation of senior party figures visited his office and demanded a leadership ballot for the following day. So bad were Rudd’s numbers he did not even contest it. Gillard got into the job, say the polls rise and called an election for August 21. He campaign was disastrous. Not only were her efforts poor. Labor was rocked by a series of damaging high level leaks. There is now no doubt Rudd was the source.
The election left Australia with its first hung parliament in 70 years. After three weeks of negotiation with crossbenchers, Gillard managed to form a government. But to do so, she had had to break a pre-election pledge “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”. Her credibility never recovered. Labor suspected Rudd had wrecked their campaign. But they could not expel him from the party, and see him resign and sparked a by-election that could bring the government down.
Instead, he was made minister for foreign affairs. It did not quench his thirst for revenge. Rather, it kept him constantly in the media, providing a platform Rudd diligently used to build a case for his return. Enough was enough for the Gillard camp. Early last year they leaked footage of foul-mouth outtakes from efforts by Rudd as prime minister to record a greeting to the Chinese community in Mandarin.
A petulant Rudd resigned, challenged and was humiliated in a leadership ballot extraordinary for the buckets of bile flung at him by many of his former most senior colleagues who cast doubt on his commitment to anything other than his own self-advancement, let alone his suitability for high office. Yet by removing him from office back in 2010, these same people had restored his standing with the electorate. Ordinary Australians were furious that the faceless men of the Labor machine had chosen the prime minister, not them.
Rudd has always known this. And with Labor facing catastrophic defeat, he hit the hustings for his allies. While schoolchildren threw sandwiches at Gillard at her photo-ops, Rudd was on TV night after night getting mobbed in the marginals. Polls showed he was far more popular than Gillard and would give Labor a fighting chance against Abbott. The party swallowed its bitter medicine. On June 26, one day before parliament was due to rise for its long winter break, it dumped Gillard and restored Rudd as leader. It had to – or be annihilated.
Now Rudd is undertaking a bizarre task. He is not just leading a party that despises him. The Gillard government effectively continued his agenda and tried to make it work. Rudd is running against his own legacy. Two leading economists have calculated some $100 billion was squandered on “low-quality government spending” under Rudd’s watch. But now he is attempted to present himself as a clean, fresh face, just as he did in 2007. Gillard was loathed. Abbott has never been hugely liked. But Rudd – or as ordinary voters greet him, Kevin, is a different matter.
“The more that is thrown at Rudd from either side of politics, the more he is defended by the average voter,” Neil Lawrence, the adman behind Kevin07, told me last week. “Their reaction appears to be: ‘Hands off our Kevin’.” The Liberals still have to be regarded as the favourites but, amazingly, a Rudd victory is not impossible. Much will depend on the quality of the campaigns. And in the last six weeks, the reborn Rudd has been the better performer.