CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Rudd, Gillard squabble over slim enough legacy
, June 20, 2015
The screening of The Killing Season series on the ABC is a potent reminder of one of the more shameful periods in the long, proud but sporadically traumatic history of Australia’s oldest political party.
The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments were riven by the ambitions of two individuals, who were happy to use each other to get to the top but then trampled over each other’s reputations in order to lift their own.
Whereas previous historic splits (such as the Holman-Hughes conscription debate during World War I, Jack Lang’s economic defiance during the Great Depression or the Great Split at the height of the Communist era) had at their heart deep ideological and policy fissures, the internecine warfare between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was about naked ambition.
It was also about the inability of modern Labor politicians to put immediate career needs behind the higher goal of trying to do what was good for the country.
Many commentators have questioned why the two former prime ministers agreed to participate in the series. Certainly, The Killing Season will do no favours for the current Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, as he personally played a leading hand in terminating both prime ministers.
The rationale behind the pair’s decision to take part in the documentary was ostensibly aimed at settling a Labor history war, something that is seen as important in the Labor family, but in reality the pair are perpetuating the same bad behaviour that brought about each other’s downfall.
It is true that Paul Keating and Bob Hawke also have spent the last couple of decades engaged in occasional breakouts of sniping at each other, while studiously avoiding sitting next to each other at Labor funerals. However, the big difference between the Hawke-Keating feud and the Rudd-Gillard feud is that the former squabble about who should be getting the credit for one of the better periods of government in recent decades.
Keating argues he was the real reform driver, and the architect of the big economic changes that established things like universal superannuation, whereas Hawke argues that his superb cabinet leadership skills, and his unique popularity and ability to take the people with him, enabled those reforms to happen.
Both are in fact right, which is why the period is generally known as the Hawke-Keating era.
By contrast the Rudd-Gillard era will be remembered for policy failure on a grand scale, chaotic government, and spin. The most recent former prime ministers are fighting over the spoils of a bad government. It is not an argument over legacy, but over who was right to have torn the other down.
The one policy success the Rudd government might be able to claim was in saving Australia from the economic calamity which swept much of the Western world, but its effectiveness or even necessity is now hotly disputed by economists.
The ABC coverage of the Labor government’s response to the global financial crisis (GFC) was generous to say the least.
On the eve of the 2007 election Rudd promised: “This sort of reckless spending must stop.” It was a devastating line but completely ignored once he was in government.
One person who certainly does not buy the “save” Australia from the GFC is longtime Howard government treasurer Peter Costello, who left Rudd and Gillard with a strong surplus.
Mr Costello says the 13 per cent lift in federal spending had no precedent in modern economic management except for the height of Whitlam mania.
“Rudd said he did it to ‘save’ Australia,” Costello wrote in News Ltd papers recently. “Over two years the Rudd government lifted spending as a proportion of the economy by 3 full percentage points. We have never balanced a budget since. It is still at that level today.”
In the end neither leader will come out of the period intact.
Labor sold its soul to get into power by backing a “conservative” John Howard lite in Kevin Rudd, putting aside his known narcissistic tendencies and grandiosity. Julia Gillard was a pivotal figure in installing Rudd as leader, and used him as a stepping-stone for her own ambitions.
Once the party grew tired of Rudd, they decided to dump him and install a left-wing leader instead. When that experiment failed, the party brought back the man they despised because he was popular.
The saddest part about the first installment of The Killing Season was the recollection that the Rudd and Gillard ascendancy was built entirely on the knifing and defeat of Kim Beazley – an honourable, capable and thoroughly decent man who would have made a fine prime minister.