To Zip or Not to Zip … And Other Tragedies

22 / 11 / 2013

By Sarah Capper

In announcing his resignation from parliament last week, it seemed quite fitting that former Prime Minister and Member for Griffith Kevin Rudd quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a tragedy about treachery and madness.

Rudd referred to the “slings and arrows” suffered during his political career (and by his family in recent months).

The phrase is part of ‘Hamlet’s’ ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, “the question” being followed by:

 Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them

And so it goes.

The quote queries what is the “noble” course of action – knowing when to cop things on the chin, when to bow out gracefully, versus pushing back and taking down everything (and everyone) with you. Ironically it’s this latter “less noble” course of action that ultimately Kevin Rudd embarked on after losing the Labor leadership to Julia Gillard in 2010, that many pollies and commentators conveniently omitted in ‘eulogising’ Kevin Rudd’s political career last week.

Yet Rudd’s use of the phrase is apt as Hamlet is a tragedy – and, as with all Shakespearean tragedies, the main protagonist is killed off, but not before setting off a series of events that pretty much eliminates – or kills off – every other major player. 

So as new Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Rudd could leave parliament with his “head held high”, a list of fatally wounded MPs that had their political lives cut short – directly or indirectly by Kevin Rudd -came to mind – Greg Combet, Peter Garrett, Nicola Roxon, Craig Emerson and of course Julia Gillard. And others like Stephen Smith and Simon Crean who one imagines possibly exited the political stage because of the exhaustion of having to hold together the ship of the ALP for the last three years. As Labor’s Tanya Plibersek reflected on election night, she scored the ALP “nine out of ten for governing the country, none out of ten for governing ourselves”.

nine out of 10 for governing the country, (but) none out of 10 for governing ourselves – See more at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/a-bad-government-that-lost-its-way-and-lost-an-election/story-fn8v83qk-1226715483004#sthash.QA9zyR4t.dpuf
nine out of 10 for governing the country, (but) none out of 10 for governing ourselves – See more at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/a-bad-government-that-lost-its-way-and-lost-an-election/story-fn8v83qk-1226715483004#sthash.QA9zyR4t.dpuf

But politicians from all sides joined Shorten last week in paying tribute to the outgoing Member for Griffith, many lavishing praise on his political career. 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised Rudd for beating his ‘political father’ John Howard at the 2007 election, and also for his apology to the Stolen Generations – an act, that granted, the Member for Griffith deserves kudos for.  

Also from the other side, Malcolm Turnbull heaped it on, arguing “the idea that the man that had won in this presidential campaign against John Howard was then going to be disposed of, discarded, like another course on a lazy Susan in a Vietnamese restaurant, the cruelty of it was extraordinary.”

Note, Malcolm Turnbull is not a fan of Yum-Cha. Turnbull, of course, would know about the “cruelty” of politics, having been “disposed of” and “discarded” as Leader of the Opposition by Tony Abbott by one vote in 2009. But unlike Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull did not then embark on a search and destroy mission. Instead, he copped it on the chin, took up the opposition communications portfolio with gusto and didn’t spend every possible opportunity trying to trip up the leader who replaced him. Some would say he acted with “nobility”.

Bill Shorten also said in his Rudd political obit that “ I do not believe we will see his like again in the parliament.”

One would hope not – a bloke so bitter about losing the leadership that he’d jeopardize his own party’s chances of winning the 2010 election and retaining government in their own right.

And it’s this act that former Labor leader Mark Latham said Kevin Rudd should be remembered for. Like or loathe Latham, the former Member for Werriwa can occasionally be relied on to inject some truth serum into debates. And last week, amongst the praise heaped on Rudd and the rewriting of history, Latham was one of the few voices stating the bleeding obvious.

In an interview with Sydney radio 2UE, Latham labeled Rudd a “once in a century egomaniac” who had “destabilised every leader under whom he served. He notoriously sabotaged Labor’s 2010 election campaign with those vengeful leaks.

”In the long sweep of Labor history, it is hard to find a character who was more destructive inside the caucus, fuelled by his own personal ambition.”

Yet Rudd still peddled the line last week that he “saved the furniture” at the 2013 election, once he’d clawed back the Prime Ministership after destabilizing Gillard for three years. Senator Doug Cameron and others also repeated this line (which cartoonist Cathy Wilcox beautifully parodied with an image of Rudd carrying a bust of himself as the ‘furniture’ he supposedly ‘saved’).

Writing for the ABC’s Drum website, Barrie Cassidy wrote that Rudd’s claim of “saving” the party from oblivion in 2013 can be countered by “others [who] ask where Gillard’s standing might have been had it not been for [Rudd’s] constant undermining of her leadership.”

We will never know. But we do know that Rudd’s exit from politics three-years-too-late should put an end to continued speculation about his motives and ambitions and another possible tilt at the leadership, should he have stuck around.

In his interview with Kerry O’Brien this week, former Prime Minister Paul Keating talked about how essential it is for prime ministers to work with their cabinet colleagues – that successful leadership cannot prevail without bringing other cabinet ministers with you in terms of policy reform.

Rudd’s manic behavior leading up to his 2010 replacement, his insistence on making and formulating policy decisions on his own, as well as other behavioural anomalies (or again, as Cassidy writes, his  tendency of being “autocratic, exclusive, disrespectful and at times flat-out abusive”) led to his downfall.

Cassidy’s piece also quotes journalist and former Rudd speechwriter James Button, who in a Fairfax article, posed these questions to his former boss:

Did he reflect on the rages he would fly into when people gave him advice he didn’t want, how he would put those people into what his staff called ‘the freezer’, sometimes not speaking to them for months or more?

Did he reflect on the way he governed in a near permanent state of crisis, how his reluctance to make decisions until the very last moment – coupled with a refusal to take unwelcome advice – led his government into chaos by the middle of 2010?

In the Victorian Women’s Trust publication ‘A Switch in Time’, author Mary Crooks described journalist Laurie Oakes’ account of what happened the night of the 2010 leadership takeover. Quoting a Labor “operative”, Oakes documents how Gillard “tried everything possible to put the show [Kevin Rudd’s leadership of the Government] back together.”

Crooks: “Oakes account gives lie to the subsequent labeling of Gillard as a devious plotter who had traitorously deposed or ‘assassinated’ a leader for no reason other than to fuel her ambition.

“Hindsight is a great source of vision. Clearly, Gillard’s mistake (and the party at large) was not to level with everyone as to what had gone seriously wrong with Rudd’s leadership; and not to demonstrate to the public that the caucus was overwhelmingly supportive of the need for change.

“Leaving aside this reticence, there are some important questions here.

“Why did media outlets continue running the line that Rudd was a popular prime minister replaced by Gillard when there was sufficient evidence available to them soon after the leadership change that testified to his ineffectual leadership of the government?

“Oakes’ testimony suggests a different dimension to Gillard’s ascendency of the leadership. Why do these same media outlets persist to this day with descriptions of her alleged ‘treachery’?”

At the recent Victorian Women’s Trust event ‘Credit Where Credit is Due’, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard herself cited a better explanation of the need to depose Rudd in 2010, as one of her regrets in Office:

“I did not take the Australian people in to my confidence in 2010 about why I became by Prime Minister.  My unwillingness at that stage to canvas issues critical of Kevin Rudd allowed a myth about a conspiracy of faceless men to be publicly substituted for the more complex truth,” she said.

The fact that a majority of his caucus colleagues then reinstated Rudd after three years of “stalking Julia”, rewarding his treachery, only continued to rub salt into an already gaping (and ultimately fatal) wound.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest tragedy of all.

sarah@vwt.org.au

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