The Kevin Rudd phenomenon is one of the more extraordinary to have swept through Australian politics over the past two generations. For Kevin Rudd to have become prime minister of Australia was astonishing enough, but to have had record personal approval ratings for more than two years in office just defied political gravity. Five years ago, no one who knew Kevin Rudd would have imagined in their wildest imagination that this could happen. Yet it did.
Let me explain.
Members of the Federal Parliament all know each other; not necessarily well, but at least a little. Over the past 20 years, few, if any, MPs have been less popular than Kevin Rudd. All politicians are at the very least a trifle vain. They like to be the centre of attention, to be in the media, to be ‘consulted’. There is barely an exception. All of them think they are a bit better than they really are. Nearly all of them are ambitious, many furiously so. But on all of those counts, no one in recorded Australian political history has ever exceeded Kevin Rudd.
There is a parliamentary consensus that Kevin Rudd is bright. No one could reasonably doubt his addiction to hard work, his studious attention to detail and his passion to acquire knowledge. His success at university and in his early years as a junior diplomat attests to that.
As prime minister, those qualities have shone through. Kevin Rudd, PM, knows stuff, speaks a foreign language — and a hard one at that — and works day and night with barely a break to sleep.
He knows he has academic ability, of course. I recall walking through the corridors of Parliament House late one evening about five years ago and encountered a busy- looking Kevin Rudd. ‘Alex,’ he said to me, ‘you and I are too bright to be leaders of our parties.’ Well, I had been the leader, and a pretty poor one at that, so the comment says something about his mood and self-esteem at the time, not me.
What MPs didn’t like about Rudd, the backbencher, and Rudd, the shadow minister, was his conceit and vanity. On 9 September 2004, an Islamist fanatic tried to blow up the Australian embassy in Jakarta. I was in Victor Harbor that day when the ambassador rang me directly on my mobile to tell me the terrible news. I told my staff we ought to go immediately to Jakarta and to take the head of the AFP, DFAT officials and intelligence people as well. We needed a VIP plane to load our officials in Canberra, fly to Adelaide to pick me up and push on to Jakarta. We could be there before bedtime.
I told John Howard of my plans and he said I ought to also take the opposition spokesman for foreign affairs, who happened to be Kevin Rudd; this was, after all, during the election campaign. Indirectly, I let Rudd know he was invited. I drove to my office to prepare for my departure. There was a message to call Rudd. He was furious. The f***ing VIP plane wasn’t going via Brisbane to pick him up. It f***ing had to. He ordered me to change its f***ing flight schedule.
I explained two things to him. First, the plane was too small to add him and his staffer unless we offloaded the AFP Commissioner or the intelligence officer. I wasn’t prepared to do that. Secondly, to travel via Brisbane would add hours to the journey. Instead, we would pay for a commercial flight for him.
This was not met with grace. A fusillade of abuse, much of it with sexual references, ensued, and then a demand that I tell him the flight schedules from Brisbane to Jakarta. ‘I am not,’ I crudely said, ‘your f***ing travel agent. DFAT will help you.’
The point is clear: people at the embassy had died, we needed to get the Indonesians onto the case to establish who the culprits were, we had to show support to the embassy staff at this time of crisis. It wasn’t about me and it certainly wasn’t about the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Mr Kevin Rudd. But for the member for Griffith it was about one thing: himself.
David Marr, a warrior for the political Left, has his own stories about Kevin Rudd at the Copenhagen climate change conference. They ring true. They are part of a pattern of behaviour. So too are the Marr revelations about the way Rudd uses people. They are not emotional beings with feelings of their own; they are vehicles to be used to satiate his personal ambitions and, when used, to be discarded. That’s why he has always had an extraordinarily high turnover of staff.
When the staff of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet assembled to say farewell to the vanquished John Howard, they did so with a sense of respect for a decent man, but not one they voted for. They wanted something fresher, more dynamic, youthful and, being public
servants, social democratic. It took them three months to realise their mistake. Work was demanded of them at any time of day or night, through weekends and public holidays; it went to the Prime Minister’s office but it never came back. By the time the work arrived, he was onto something else. One very senior public servant of long standing ruefully reported that there hadn’t been a more inefficient and thoughtless prime minister since Malcolm Fraser.
All of which begs the question: what is Rudd trying to achieve? Marr claims Rudd is fascinated by power, wants to get power but doesn’t know what to do with power once he gets it. I don’t feel comfortable with this thesis. People who want power do know what to do with it; that’s why they want it.
Rudd wants fame. He wants to be on TV every night. He wants to be recognised everywhere he goes. He wants to be the centre of attention. That’s why he casts people aside when he’s done with them, it’s why he courts the media, it’s why as a shadow minister he had his staff film him making a statement and then sent it to TV stations. It wasn’t because he wanted power, it was because he wanted to be on TV.
Rudd never did believe in any political philosophy or policy prescriptions. As shadow minister for foreign affairs, he seldom bothered with climate change. The Iraq war was his theme. After all, it was unpopular.
But when he became opposition leader he talked of climate change with passion; the passion of someone who can read an opinion poll. In September 2007, when Rudd had a 45-minute meeting with the President of the United States, he didn’t mention the topic. When, two-and-a-half years after his election, the emissions trading scheme became a political challenge, he dumped it. These two events marry. If climate change were a core belief — the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’ — he would have talked about it with gusto when he met the President; and he would have fought like a Kilkenny cat to save his response to it when it was challenged by Tony Abbott.
Marr is probably right. The secret of what Rudd is all about lies in his childhood. That’s probably true of all of us. Something happened then which made him determined one day to be famous. He has succeeded — spectacularly. But like all people who seek fame for themselves at the expense of others, his fame will eat him up. Fame fed with substance can make a person great. Fame alone will destroy you.
It has taken an incredible three years for the Australian public to realise who their national leader really is. I sat with a Labor luminary having a late-night drink in June 2008. He turned to me and said: ‘Mate, one day the Australian public will grow to hate Kevin Rudd as much as I do.’ That day has arrived.
Alexander Downer was foreign minister from 1996 to 2007 and federal Liberal leader in 1994.