CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
The enduring legacy of Rudd's autocratic style
, July 9, 2011
There are some deeply felt reasons why many Labor Party MPs cannot countenance a return of Kevin Rudd as leader, despite opinion polls showing that the Australian public overwhelmingly prefer him as Prime Minister to the woman who ousted him, Julia Gillard.
Labor MPs generally tolerate a good deal of self-indulgent behaviour from their leaders, particularly from those who have taken them to an historic election victory, as Mr Rudd did in 2007.
However, Mr Rudd’s autocratic style, as exemplified by two key appointments of his prime ministership, has left a bitterness inside the Labor Caucus which has not gone away.
Mr Rudd says he is contrite about his behaviour and has attempted to extend the olive branch to a few MPs, but many are still bruised and say his attempts at payback (i.e., naming Ms Gillard’s first anniversary as “Assassination Day”) are simply beyond the pale.
Even the growing number of MPs who have come to realise that Ms Gillard’s collapse in popularity is now approaching the point of no return, say there is simply no stomach for a return to Rudd.
According to senior ALP figures, Mr Rudd played a decisive role in the selection of both the Governor-General and the Chief Justice of the High Court, with both appointments causing a good deal of unhappiness and resentment inside the Labor Party.
The case of the former is fairly well known; the case of the latter is barely known at all.
Early on in his term as PM, with the appointment of a new Governor-General looming, Mr Rudd unilaterally declared he would not be making political appointments to high office.
There was only one possible “political appointment” in the mix, and the declaration effectively put an end to any hope Kim Beazley might have had of performing the role.
In fact, Mr Beazley, whose non-combative personality and jovial nature would have been readily accepted by conservatives, would have followed in the footsteps of other former politicians such as Sir Paul Hasluck and Bill Hayden.
Instead, Mr Rudd chose as Australia’s 25th Governor-General a fellow Queenslander and career feminist, Quentin Bryce, who had been the state’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner.
Ms Bryce has in turn assisted Mr Rudd in his ambitious efforts to secure a seat at the United Nations Security Council by conducting an unusual and expensive nine-nation trip in an effort to lobby African nations to vote for Australia.
According to the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the African odyssey cost Australian taxpayers $700,000, although former Governor-General Bill Hayden defended the expense and the unorthodox use of the Governor-General in these lobbying efforts.
The second Rudd appointment is less well-known but equally important — that of the Chief Justice of the High Court.
In July 2008, Mr Rudd said the new chief justice would be Robert French — the first Western Australian to be appointed to that role, and ironically a life-long friend of Mr Beazley’s.
At the time, Justice French was considered an uncontroversial appointment. He had first been appointed to the Federal Court, at age 39, by the Hawke Government and was a distinguished constitutional lawyer, but one who had been independent in his judgments, rather than a judicial activist.
Since then, Labor figures have claimed that Mr Rudd personally moved to appoint French over the former Chief Justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court and Lieutenant-Governor of the state, James Spigelman.
The Polish-born Spigelman was a brilliant lawyer, a Sydney University medallist and former principal private secretary to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
As a student, he also took part on the 1965 “Freedom Ride” to highlight the plight of Aborigines in outback NSW. He served as NSW Solicitor-General before Premier Bob Carr appointed him NSW Supreme Court Chief Justice in 1998. In short, his “Labor” credentials were impeccable.
It is understood that the federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland personally endorsed Spigelman, but Mr Rudd over-ruled him, preferring someone who was more “low-key”.
Spigelman retired from the bench on May 31, 2011, and Labor insiders believe the decision to overlook Spigelman was a lost opportunity done in the name of keeping in place “just one brilliant star in the firmament”.
In the end, such decisions are the prerogative of the Prime Minister of the day, and Justice French is likely to prove a worthy chief justice.
But as Labor ponders on the Rudd experiment and his attempts to redeem himself in the eyes of the people and the party, they should reflect that the biggest mistake was not made by Mr Rudd, but by themselves.
This was the decision to break with 100 years of party tradition and permit the leader, rather than the Caucus, to choose the frontbench. This was what gave Mr Rudd unprecedented power for a Labor Prime Minister.
It was Mr Rudd’s way or the highway, and no one had the gumption or the backbone to stand up to him.
Mr Rudd now admits, more or less, that he abused this unprecedented power by allowing too much political decision-making to be handled by his own very inexperienced office of junior political staffers.
The problem for Labor is that the “leader-appoints-all-rule” remains in place for the current Prime Minister Gillard as well, although the patience of the Caucus is increasingly unlikely to last as long as it did for Mr Rudd.