Tom Switzer

Fallen idol

Fallen idol
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‘A political leader must keep looking over his shoulder all the time to see if the boys are still there. If they aren’t still there, he’s no longer a political leader.’

Perhaps nothing better describes the extraordinary downfall of Kevin Rudd than American presidential adviser Bernard Baruch’s remarks in 1932. Extraordinary, because for three years from 2006 to late 2009, Australia’s prime minister was in the political stratosphere. And yet, today, Rudd was knifed in the most ruthless, swift and effective fashion. And the hit men? Factional warlords of the Australian union movement. The Opposition leader Tony Abbott reflected the views of many Australians when he told Parliament today: ‘A midnight knock on the door followed by a political execution is no way to treat a prime minister.’  

Of course, Australian Labour party history is littered with examples of the boys either knifing their leader or setting party policy. In 1963, 36 unknown members of the federal conference of the Labour party -- otherwise known as the ’36 faceless men’ – famously were deciding the parliamentary party’s policy for or against US bases while the parliamentary leaders were outside in the cold waiting for their orders from the meeting.

The problem here is that the antics of the boys who either knife their leaders or set party policy contradict the notion of government by a parliament elected by the public. Simply put, governing decisions should not be determined by a tiny extra-parliamentary minority elected by another minority to direct and control the parliamentary representatives.


So why has it come to this? Why has the most popular prime minister in living memory declined so quickly in recent months that he became a sitting duck for the union boys to knock off. The answer is Rudd himself.

He was arrogant and aloof, failing to consult colleagues about important policy-making decisions. He was, moreover, an opportunist of such proportions that the only thing that exceeded his reach was his grasp.

In recent weeks, he had been taking a steady pounding on the charge that he was a flip-flopper: on asylum seekers, home insulation, and emissions trading. And these flip flops merely bred more doubt in people who already wondered where he came from. Whereas you always knew where John Howard or Paul Keating stood and what they were about, notwithstanding the odd policy U-turn, it was difficult to identify anything their successor seemed genuinely to believe in other than his own political success. There was always an air of detached calculation about his public performances, a sense that in different circumstances he could just as happily argued the opposing case.

This is a man who defined himself during the 2007 election campaign as an ‘economic conservative’, committed to low public debt, fiscal rectitude and free-market reform, but who in office represented the second coming of Jim Callaghan and a big-spending, big-government, debt-ridden agenda that caused so much economic angst in Britain and Australia during the 1970s.

A man whose governing creed represented symbols, not action; phoney gestures rather than difficult decisions.

A man who appealed to the metropolitan sophisticates by weakening Howard’s border protection policy, but who eventually pandered to Howard’s battlers by preaching a ‘hardline’ policy against ‘evil’ people-smugglers.

A man who claimed climate change was ‘the great moral challenge of our time’ and linked climate ‘deniers’ with ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘vested interests’, but who dropped the evangelical language along with his landmark cap-and-tax energy legislation as soon as the political climate changed.

From the time of the Stern Report in late 2006 to the Copenhagen conference in late 2009, Rudd had ruthlessly used the issue of man-made global warming to attack his conservative opponents and destroy two Liberal leaders. Even after Copenhagen, the boys wanted him to sell his case for decisive action to tackle climate change on the hustings. But he was intimidated by Tony Abbott, an unashamed admirer of Thatcher and Howard, who campaigned effectively against what he called a ‘great big tax to create a big slush fund to provide politicised handouts, run by a giant bureaucacy’. In the heat of the campaign, Rudd went to water, ditched the policy – and, in the process, alienated himself from his boys and Labour’s true believers.

Yet this was the kind of issue a normal prime minister would want to fight, maybe even spend political capital to do it. Whatever one thinks of their politics, it is hard to deny that neither Howard nor Keating was afraid to challenge popular opinion and provoke people into thinking and then arguing about the causes they sincerely believed were in the nation’s interest. Rudd, however, always took the path of least resistance. It aggravated the boys around him. And it helped set the scene for his extraordinary fall.

Tom Switzer is editor of the Spectator Australia in Sydney