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.
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.
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