Rudd’s quest for revenge may be Labor’s undoing

February 25, 2012

IT TURNS out Kevin Rudd wasn’t a happy little Vegemite after all. The drama of recent days, which will reach its denouement with Monday’s Labor leadership spill, has confirmed what we suspected all along: Rudd is a most vengeful little Vegemite.

The wounds from June 2010 remain unhealed, and understandably so. Sometimes there can be no recovery from abject humiliation. Yet does the manner in which Rudd was removed as prime minister, and the subsequent unpopularity of a Gillard government, justify a Rudd return?

Rudd certainly believes right is on his side. It is a belief that often accompanies the human desire for retribution. As English philosopher Francis Bacon described it, ”revenge is a kind of wild justice”, though in Bacon’s view, ”the more man’s nature runs to [it], the more ought law to weed it out”.

One thing must be made clear. Rudd was never in any real sense unjustly wronged. The fundamental circumstances of his removal in 2010 were straightforward: he had lost the overwhelming support of his parliamentary colleagues. Nothing but pride and vanity prevented him from contesting the leadership ballot against Julia Gillard. The conditions of procedural justice were met.


Rudd would have redeemed himself to his party colleagues had he taken Bacon’s counsel and weeded out the vengeance in his heart. When Kim Beazley lost the Labor leadership to Rudd in 2006 (on the same day that Beazley’s brother died), he was gracious in defeat and subsequently loyal to Rudd and the party. Looking abroad, one thinks of Al Gore’s magnanimity after the 2000 US presidential election.

In the cases of Beazley and Gore, there was life after political loss. In the case of Rudd, his personal ambition and sense of entitlement have meant that only the top prize would be enough.

Naturally, Rudd and his supporters have couched the case for his return in electoral terms. Rudd has asked his caucus colleagues to consider who is best placed to defeat Tony Abbott at the next election. Some government MPs believe that only Rudd II may help prevent a savage wipeout of Labor seats.

But just how strong is the case for Rudd to lead Labor again?

Rudd’s contention that he would do a better job than Gillard is questionable. The plunge in Labor’s primary vote and Rudd’s approval ratings as PM in 2010 demonstrates that he can’t claim to have the whip hand over Abbott. It remains unclear precisely how Rudd could combat Abbott’s authenticity and trenchant populism.

In any case, prime ministers shouldn’t be judged against polls, but against what they actually do in power.

Let’s revisit Rudd’s record. Guiding the Australian economy through the global financial crisis was no mean feat, given that all other OECD economies suffered a recession. Beyond this, though, the years 2007-10 were a wasted opportunity for reform and a renewal of Labor social democracy.

That it all went wrong, in the space of three years, underlines a spectacular failure of leadership. Rudd’s problem, like the insecure nerd at school who simply wanted to be liked, was that he couldn’t help himself from promising too much in order to be popular. Nothing was too grandiose, whether it was ”fixing the federation”, a new ”Asia Pacific community” or confronting ”the greatest moral challenge of our time”. Ultimately, he never harnessed the immense public goodwill he enjoyed for reform – as demonstrated by his failure to call a double dissolution election to secure legislative passage of an emissions trading scheme.

The highly personal attacks on Rudd by cabinet ministers are revealing. Rudd treated his colleagues in Parliament with contempt and ran a dysfunctional government. There is a widespread belief in Canberra that his years in office constituted the first pathologically narcissistic prime ministership in Australia. As leader, he consistently abandoned hard policy debate for the easy consolation of strong polls. He confused permanent campaigning for good government. He regarded popularity not as a means to an end but as an end in itself.

Labor MPs will no doubt reflect on this as Monday’s caucus vote approaches. But asking who is best placed to defeat Abbott is the wrong question. Labor simply may not recover from its civil war for a generation. Installing Rudd could trigger a collapse of minority government and expose Labor to an immediate election. More troubling, perhaps, it would signal that the parliamentary party has lost all sense of self-respect.

Labor MPs are faced with a situation resembling the Judgment of Solomon. They must adjudicate between two claimants locked in a deeply personal contest. Gillard has said, at least, she wouldn’t seek the leadership again if she is defeated. With all of his vengeance and bitterness, Rudd gives the impression that he would be content to say of the party he wishes to lead once more: ”It shall be neither mine nor thine; divide it.”