Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I could think of no better quote to sum up Kevin Rudd, than the one above by the great 19th Century American writer and poet, Walt Whitman, described by his biographer, Henry Seidel Canby, as a “Jeffersonian Democrat, an idealist, a violent patriot, a humanitarian, a reformer, an ardent defender of progress and ‘a fighter for democracy who knows that democracy has to be fought for’.”*
Kevin Rudd is a living contradiction. The former two-time Prime Minister astonished us with his erudition, his passion for Indigenous Australians, his sense of humour (eg, asking for “gin” instead of water during his farewell speech in Parliament), yet angered us with his treatment of flight attendants and makeup artists, to say nothing of the way he expected his staff to perform Herculean feats of performance, and taking his revenge on Julia Gillard’s seizure of his job by allegedly leaking damaging things about her government for three years, and finally reclaiming what he thought rightfully belonged to him – the leadership of the Labor Pary and the primeministership.
In an excellent piece in the new online news journal, The New Daily, Sean Kelly, former media adviser to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, says Rudd lost his way after he failed, despite giving it his all, to achieve global agreement on climate change. Kelly is one of the best press secretaries I’ve come across in decades of dealing with the gatekeepers who allow or disallow access to their bosses. He’s also a straightshooter who was with Rudd in Copenhagen during the ill-fated climate change conference, when the wheels came off for the Prime Minister: “His sweeping vision suddenly became a symbol of his inability to get things done. His preternatural reading of the popular will became seen as a slavishness to polling. His micro-management and centralisation of power, so effective in a time of crisis, were written about as marks of a man who couldn’t delegate or consult.” http://bit.ly/1j7YySO
I have to admit I never encountered the rude Rudd personally, but there was much evidence of it on television and in news reports – the most famous perhaps, his swearing during a rehearsal of a video in Mandarin, blaming his fluffs on a Chinese interpreter. In case you are one of the few who haven’t seen it, here’s a version from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyTCKoiYk7w When Kevin Rudd was shadow foreign minister from 2001 to 2006, you couldn’t have met a more gracious guest, willing to come in to the studios on a Sunday morning, and his press secretary, Alister Jordan, used to call on Friday nights and check to see if we had someone lined up for the Sunday program on the Nine Network.
Then in 2008, the Prime Minister, with a new press secretary, Lachlan Harris, and Alister Jordan, promoted to chief of staff, suddenly became difficult to get for an interview. Admittedly, I was now working for Sky News, as the EP of the Sunday Agenda program, up against my old Sunday program, and the doyen of the Canberra press gallery, Laurie Oakes, as well as The Insiders on the ABC, with the respected Barrie Cassidy, and Meet the Press, with the equally respected Paul Bongiorno. The latter two shows also had panels composed of the best political journalists in Australia.
Still, I made the calls to Lachlan Harris, who seldom returned them, so I tried getting in touch with Alister Jordan, and even sent him an email or two, and yes, you guessed it, I never heard from him again. I finally heard from Harris that Sky, meaning Sunday Agenda, of course, “wouldn’t get a look-in until later in the year,” and I could understand that. We were minnows in a pool with very large fish. But much later in the year, I tried calling Lachlan Harris again, and still had difficulty getting in touch, despite having secured the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, and the then Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and former presidential candidate, Howard Dean, as guests for Sunday Agenda, both of whom were interviewed by Sky’s political editor, David Speers, in Washington. In late November, I asked Lachlan Harris again, and he said: “Sorry, Sky will have to wait until next year.” I replied: “But you said later in the year. The year’s almost over, and we’ll be having a hiatus soon.” He did not apologise. At the time, I figured it was all Harris’s fault, but he (and Alister Jordan) must have been under massive micro-management pressure.
Kevin Rudd could have become a great prime minister. His achievements were highlighted on Wednesday night when he announced his resignation. Top of the list, of course, was his apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008, one of the best speeches in Australian political history, followed by his leadership in steering the country through the Global Financial Crisis, and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. But like Julius Caesar, Rudd’s hubris led to his downfall, though unlike Caesar, his assassination was figurative, carried out by faceless men, who brought him back to life as PM when they realised they could be next on the chopping block.
‘WE WILL NOT SEE HIS LIKE AGAIN’
Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, who like Cassius (I won’t carry this analogy too far!) has a lean and hungry look and was instrumental in Kevin Rudd’s rebirth as prime minister, paid tribute to his departing colleague: “I do not believe we will see his like again in the parliament.” Many Labor politicians are clearly relieved about that. The PM Rudd deposed in June, Julia Gillard, was gracious in her farewell to the man she saw the best and worst of, in this tweet: “Best wishes to Kevin, Therese & their family as they embark on the next stage of their lives.” Surprisingly, perhaps, the Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had no qualms about bringing up the knifing of Kevin Rudd: “The betrayal of you as leader of your party is one of the most shocking things I have ever witnessed in politics.”
Sean Kelly, who travelled with both Rudd and Gillard in good and bad times, makes a significant point: “After Rudd was removed, I went to work for Julia Gillard, a great leader in her own right. Over the years to come I would learn anew the lesson I had absorbed from my stint with Rudd: that each leader’s strengths are their weaknesses, that it is the intersection of those traits with their times that shapes their legacy.”
Rudd’s strengths were his energy, tenacity, determination and ambition. Gillard’s were her passions for reform and education, empathy, negotiating skills and trust. Yes, Sean, you’re right. Kevin Rudd needed an ego reduction operation, and Julia Gillard eyes in the back of her head to see where the knives were coming from.
As Kevin mentioned in his resignation speech, his family suffered from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in parliament, “which regrettably have become part of the stock and trade for so many of us in public life,” and that, of course, included Julia Gillard and her family.
Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten and their supporters in parliament immediately went for each other’s throats after a plea by the Prime Minister on the opening day for a kinder debate: “All of us can do better in this Parliament than we did in the last Parliament. I am determined to do that.”
And the last word really should go to Kevin Rudd, who didn’t always follow this advice, but who urged MPs on Wednesday night: “Be gentle to each other.”
*John Kouwenhoven in his introduction to Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, Random House, 1950.
Do I contradict myself?