EDITORIAL: Kevin Rudd's last hurrah
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, June 22, 2013
As the electoral standing of Prime Minister Gillard languished below that of opposition leader Tony Abbott and opinion polls pointed to a catastrophic defeat for Labor this coming September, Kevin Rudd launched an electoral blitz around the country, in which he was mobbed by enthusiastic supporters wanting him back in the Lodge.
Despite the reservations of many of his parliamentary colleagues, Kevin Rudd has always been a media favourite, and enjoyed high personal popularity. This seems to have been enhanced as Julia Gillard’s standing has fallen.
On prime-time television, Kevin Rudd was seen in schools and shopping centres, urging his Labor colleagues to stand by the party’s principles and fight on, and committing himself to serve out the next term in parliament regardless of the election outcome.
The contrast between the “new” Kevin Rudd and the man who retired silently to the back benches 15 months ago after failing to depose the Prime Minister, and who refused to challenge Julia Gillard last March, when several ministers resigned in a futile bid to force a leadership “spill”, was striking.
Last week, Rudd issued a call to arms to fellow Labor MPs facing near certain defeat in September’s election, and called on voters to again trust Labor.
It is a commentary on the state of Labor Party politics that MPs who forced Rudd out of office during his first term as Prime Minister, and overwhelmingly endorsed Julia Gillard as recently as February 2012, should now be tempted to reinstate Rudd as captain of the sinking ship.
Despite their desperation, there remains a deep feeling of resentment against Kevin Rudd in senior Labor ranks. Many of his former Cabinet colleagues recall the arrogant, petulant behaviour which Rudd showed towards them when he was Prime Minister.
Others remember the way in which he won government by promising to be financially responsible, then blew the budget surplus inherited from the Howard Government on extravagantly wasteful schemes such as the mishandled home-insulation scheme, the billions of dollars transferred into voters’ bank accounts at the height of the global financial crisis, and the billions wasted in Labor’s BER (Building the Education Revolution) scheme, introduced by the then Education Minister, Julia Gillard.
Still others remember the way in which he forced up domestic gas and electricity prices in a vain attempt to persuade the rest of the world to introduce “a price on carbon”.
Several senior ministers who had served under him announced publicly in 2010 and in 2012 that if he were returned to the leadership, they would step down from their posts.
In her three years in office, Julia Gillard has continued every one of Rudd’s policies, and compounded this by signing a formal alliance with the Greens who have only one seat in the lower house.
The agreement gave the Greens the opportunity to introduce legislation and preferred access to the Prime Minister and other senior government ministers.
While few of Kevin Rudd’s parliamentary colleagues were willing to speak out publicly against the former leader, some of the deep antipathy which he generates was voiced by former Labor leader, Mark Latham, who blamed leaks from Kevin Rudd for his own demise.
Latham accused Rudd of pursuing “a jihad of revenge [against Gillard] the like of which we’ve never seen before in the history of Australian politics”. Speaking on radio 2UE, Latham said, “Rudd is an ego-maniac. Rudd is addicted to media attention. He’s not acting rationally.”
Latham added, “Let’s make it absolutely clear. Rudd knows that every time he gets in the media, he knocks Gillard a notch or two down in the polls. This is deliberate, an absolute recharge of what happened in 2010.... Some people wanted to expel him for that, and maybe they should have, because what we have now is a deliberate re-run of that sabotage that we saw three years ago.”
Latham described recent events as “the disintegration of the modern Labor party”.
The problem for Labor is that, whoever leads the Labor Party, it will be saddled with a long list of policy failures, of economic extravagance accompanied by savage cutbacks to vital defence services, of billions spent polishing the government’s green credentials and fighting “climate change”, amid the continued decline of manufacturing and agriculture.
While Rudd’s campaign is clearly designed to change Labor’s leadership, it will also add to the personal rifts which have damaged public confidence in the government.
Some of Labor’s high-profile leaders have already announced that they will be retiring at the next election, including Martin Ferguson, Chris Evans, Harry Jenkins, Nicola Roxon and Robert McClelland.
There are now deep internal divisions around the personalities of both Rudd and Gillard, as well as those who fall into their respective camps. The election campaign and its outcome will inevitably deepen those divisions, making the task of rebuilding the party’s credibility after the election even more difficult.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.