Rudd lacked the purpose Labor needed

November 15, 2013

By Dennis Glover

Do you remember 15 years ago? 1998? Seems like yesterday, doesn’t it. That’s when Kevin Rudd first entered Parliament. How could he have come and gone so quickly?

I was on Kim Beazley’s staff, and it was obvious this new guy would make it. In such jobs you meet many leadership wannabes. Some – the lazy, the delusional, the fakers and the dilettantes  simply aren’t up to it, and you just know from the start it’s never going to happen.

But then you meet someone who simply will not accept losing, and you quickly realise that opposing them is pointless, because in their determination to succeed they will out-work you, out-think you, out-strategise you, and ultimately bring the whole house down if they don’t get their way. They will win, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Such was Kevin Rudd.

Of course he got there. And for a while he seemed to be just the thing Labor needed. After more than a decade in opposition Labor was lacking the clarity of purpose and the ruthless single-mindedness needed to defeat John Howard. Rudd brought that in spades. Nothing was allowed to stand in his way.

A bolshie union leader muddying the message? Expel him. Suburban Bible-bashers don’t like the party’s tolerance? Oppose gay marriage. The markets accuse you of economic illiteracy? Call for the reckless spending to stop. Pure chutzpah! But it was a breath of fresh air – an approach that soon became breathtaking in its audacity, and as it pushed the polls up, more people got on board.

Re-energised, Labor even managed to update its old program. The Mandarin-speaking Rudd embodied positive change, and for a while it looked as if Labor wasn’t trying to drag the country to the left but into the future, the Coalition moving not only to the right, but into the past. When they looked closely at the detail, like school funding, there was much for “progressives” to worry about, but Kevin gave them plenty else: the promise of an apology to the Stolen Generations, the commitment to lead the world on climate change, a concern for the homeless, and a computer on every desk. And those clean-cut middle-class kids in their Kevin -™07 T-shirts just exuded so much optimism that dissent went underground.

It was, dare I say it, a Whitlam moment, even if on election night well-lubricated Labor party-goers were left scratching their heads.


Within the first year there were two towering achievements. First the Apology, which ironically guarantees that the mediocre orator Rudd will be remembered for a speech. And second, his response to the global financial crisis.

Maurice Newman thinks it was disastrous, but Nobel laureates such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz disagree. Here was Labor doing what its true believers dreamt of – championing the economic role of the state, saving the working class from ruin and despair, and claiming it all as a big win for Social Democracy, capital S, capital D. For a bright, shining moment, Kevin Rudd from Queensland was leading the global fight back against the Washington consensus. Progressives could’t stop pinching themselves.

Then it all unravelled, and so quickly that many couldn’t fathom its legitimacy. Whether it was the backdown over climate change, or the Oceanic Viking dithering, or the tiresomeness of the juvenile media strategies, doesn’t really matter. From the night the caucus toppled a first-term PM, Labor was doomed. Kevin’s people blamed the faceless executioners, and with good reason. Julia’s people blamed Kevin, with equally good reason, especially after his payback treachery robbed her of a majority.


But in reality, the entire Labor movement was at fault. In the midst of a global recession, and in the face of a conservative media assault, Labor needed mature leadership and internal discipline knitted together by self-sacrifice and moral purpose. Instead it got managerialist chaos from the Prime Minister’s Office, undergraduate plotting from the caucus, and moral collapse. They blew it.

Kevin Rudd’s public appeal was real – real enough to deliver victory over Labor’s nemesis John Howard and perhaps stave off a wipe-out at the end.

But it proved too thin a veneer to give Labor the purpose and unity it needed after 11 years of ripping itself to pieces in opposition. Far from being a better man than the caucus he led, Kevin Rudd turned out to be another product of it: in parts distrustful, disrespectful, disloyal, philosophically directionless, morally rudderless, deserving perhaps of his fate. Labor, have you learned yet?