BEYOND THE KING-IN-EXILE

The Australian Labor Party faces a far bigger question than whether Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd should lead it, or even whether it can win the next election.

The Australian Labor Party faces a far bigger question than whether Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd should lead it, or even whether it can win the next election.

Can Labor rebuild itself as a force that occupies the centre and addresses the hopes and concerns of voters, while remaining a great vehicle for change in Australian politics? Can it begin talking again to the tens and even hundreds of thousands of Australians who wish Labor well, but have drifted away from membership or even a sense of loose allegiance to it? Can it throw open its doors to say, "We are no longer a party of insiders and apparatchiks. Whether you are members or not, we want your ideas, energy, criticisms and reforming spirit"?

This is now a generational, life-or-death challenge for the ALP. It needs leaders who are committed to working with others to achieve it, who can take advice and manage the party and government as a team, whose agendas go beyond personal ambition. That leader was not Kevin Rudd.

The trick to government, Paul Keating once said, is to pick three big things and do them well. But Rudd opened a hundred policy fronts, and focused on very few of them. He centralised decision-making in his office yet could not make difficult decisions. He called climate change the greatest moral challenge of our time, then walked away from introducing an emissions trading scheme. He set a template for governing that Labor must move beyond.

On Thursday, for the third time in three years, a large majority of Rudd's caucus colleagues made it clear that they did not want him as leader. Yet for years Rudd seemed as if he would never be content until he returned as leader. On Friday he said that he would never again seek the leadership of the party. He must keep his word, or else the impasse will destabilise and derail the party until he leaves Parliament.

Since losing the prime ministership, Rudd never understood that for his prospects to change within the government he had to openly acknowledge, at least in part, that there were sensible reasons why Gillard and her supporters toppled him in 2010. Then, as hard as it would have been, he had to get behind Gillard, just as Bill Hayden put aside his great bitterness and got behind Bob Hawke and joined his ministry after losing the Labor leadership to him in 1983.

Yes, Rudd's execution was murky and brutal and should have been done differently, perhaps with a delegation of senior ministers going to Rudd first to say change or go. Yes, the consequences have been catastrophic for Gillard and for the ALP. "Blood will have blood," as Dennis Glover, a former Gillard speechwriter who also wrote speeches for Rudd, said in a newspaper on Thursday.

But why did it happen? Why did so many Labor MPs resolve to vote against Rudd that he didn't dare stand? Why was he thrashed in his 2012 challenge? Why have his numbers not significantly moved, despite all the government's woes?

Because - it must be said again - Rudd was a poor prime minister. To his credit, he led the government's brave and decisive response to the global financial crisis. His apology speech changed Australia and will be remembered for years to come. But beyond that he has few achievements, and the way he governed brought him down.

At the time of his 2012 challenge, seven ministers went public with fierce criticisms of Rudd's governing style. When most of them made it clear they would not serve again in a Rudd cabinet, many commentators wrote this up as slander and character assassination of Rudd, or as one of those vicious but mysterious internal brawls that afflict the Labor Party from time to time. They missed the essential points: that the criticisms came from a diverse and representative set of ministers, and they had substance.

If the word of these seven ministers is not enough, consider the reporting of Rudd's treatment of colleagues by Fairfax journalist David Marr in his 2010 Quarterly Essay, Power Trip. Or the words of Glover, who wrote last year that as a "member of the Gang of Four Hundred or So (advisers and speechwriters) I can assure you that the chaos and frustration described by Gillard supporters during February's failed leadership challenge rang very, very true with about 375 of us."

Consider the reporting of Rudd's downfall by ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy in his book, Party Thieves. Never had numbers tumbled so quickly, Cassidy wrote. "That's because Rudd himself drove them. His own behaviour had caused deep-seated resentment to take root." Leaders had survived slumps before and would again. But "Rudd was treated differently because he was different: autocratic, exclusive, disrespectful and at times flat-out abusive". Former Labor minister Barry Cohen told Cassidy: "If Rudd was a better bloke he would still be leader. But he pissed everybody off."

These accounts tallied with my own observations when I worked as a speechwriter for Rudd in 2009. While my own experience of Rudd was both poor and brief, I worked with many people - 40 or more - who worked closely with him. Their accounts were always the same. While Rudd was charming to the outside world, behind closed doors he treated people with rudeness and contempt. At first I kept waiting for my colleagues to give me another side of Rudd: that he could be difficult but was at heart a good bloke. Yet apart from some conversations in which people praised his handling of the global financial crisis, no one ever did.

Since he lost power, is there any sign that Rudd has reflected on his time in office, accepted that he made mistakes, that he held deep and unaccountable grudges and treated people terribly?

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, when his obsessive focus on his health reforms left the government utterly unprepared to deal with the challenges of the emissions trading scheme, the budget, the Henry tax review and the mining tax? To date there is no sign that he has learnt from the failures of his time as prime minister.

Deposing an elected prime minister is far more grave than dumping an opposition leader. Even so, it is useful to compare Rudd's behaviour with that of Malcolm Turnbull. No doubt Turnbull was devastated when he was deposed by Tony Abbott in late 2009. No doubt he still wants to be Liberal leader and believes that one day he can be again. But Turnbull has played by the book. He returned to Abbott's frontbench, seems to be loyal, and is playing a leading role in the opposition's good fortunes. From this position he stands the best chance of being considered again by his colleagues.

Rudd could have done the same. The road back - a hard road, certainly - was through loyalty to Gillard. She gave him every opportunity to take it - unwisely in hindsight - making him foreign minister after the 2010 coup. Had he been loyal, he might even have been prime minister now. But he couldn't see past his own sense of betrayal and outrage.

"Politics is about power," Rudd said in the first line of his maiden speech in 1998. In a sense, the past five years of Australian politics has been the attempt to manage Rudd's personality, ambition and will to power.

When he was prime minister, his ministers, backbenchers and advisers - from his deputy Julia Gillard down - tried to work with and around him, covering up for his chaotic management style.

There were understandable reasons why they did: Rudd had defeated John Howard, he was popular with the public, government must always move forward. But when Gillard and the party axed him, they failed to properly explain to the public why they had done it. This was a great mistake, and Gillard - whose decency is evident in the support she still carries in caucus, despite all the recent problems - has paid for it ever since.

This week I called the head of a leading daily newspaper and asked whether he could confirm a story that Rudd had met him earlier this year and set out his leadership plans. He said that Rudd had initiated contact, and they had met. He said that Rudd did not say he would challenge Gillard, but when I asked what they talked about, whether Rudd had spoken of his growing support in caucus or the failings of the government, the executive replied, "I'm not going down that track," and curtailed the conversation.

Cassidy got further last year, just before Rudd's failed challenge. At the time Rudd was insisting publicly that he would not challenge, and categorically denying that he had ever spoken to a journalist about the leadership. But Cassidy reported: "I know the names of some of those he has spoken to. I know where he said it, in his office, on a parliamentary sitting day, and I know what he said. He told them a challenge would happen; he told them he was prepared to lose the first ballot and go to the backbench; and in one conversation he laughed about the prospect of Gillard stumbling again."

Rudd's apparent misuse of the off-the-record rule has been so glaring that it prompted former Age editor-in-chief Michael Gawenda to argue that the rule should be rewritten: if a politician briefs journalists off-the-record, then says the opposite in public, the journalists should be released from their undertaking to keep their source confidential, rather than report a lie to the public.

Rudd said on Thursday that he would never break his pledge not to challenge Gillard. But this was a technical defence. Does anyone seriously think that Rudd would not have stood for leader if there had been a spill of positions and he knew he had the numbers? Does anyone seriously believe that while Rudd's supporters worked against Gillard every day, Rudd stood aside, aloof and disapproving of these actions on his behalf? A word from him could have quietened "the Rudd camp", as the media keep calling it without ever giving any accurate sense of its size.

Simon Crean, who on Thursday announced his switching of support from Gillard to Rudd, said that Rudd had to stop "selling the dummy in the media that he's got the numbers ... It's about time he stood up and instead of having his camp leak things, actually had the courage of his conviction and his beliefs."

Crean was right about that. He was right, too, that Gillard has a lot of work to do, that many recent decisions have been poorly executed. The government has made mistakes that cannot be blamed on Rudd. Crean urged it to not only restore proper process in decision-making but to try to restore the open, reforming zeal of the Hawke-Keating governments. While not giving up the hope of a miracle win, it must also start preparing the party for life in opposition, and the slow rebuilding of Labor's strength and hopes.

And what about Rudd? The opportunity for redemption is in his hands, as it always was. Can he serve loyally in the shadow cabinet or as a backbencher after the next election? If he can't he should leave politics. He is an intelligent man: he should not want to spend the most productive years of his life brooding on the backbench, the embittered king-in-exile. Until he has shown himself capable of such a transformation, he should never again be entrusted with the leadership of the Labor Party.

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