Kevin Rudd has bowed out of politics in a tearful farewell to Parliament that drew a heartfelt tribute from Tony Abbott and a highly emotional one from former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.
Ending an extraordinary political career – in which he was sacked by his party from the prime ministership in 2010, only to be reinstated this year in Labor’s desperate bid to prevent an electoral wipeout – Rudd declared it was time for “the baton unequivocally to be passed to others”.
He concluded his speech with his signature line: “It really is time for me to zip”, and received a standing ovation from colleagues.
Rudd’s exit will please many in Labor who believe that while he had no chance of another leadership comeback, he would be a destabilising presence as long as he remained.
But Labor will have a tough fight in his Brisbane seat of Griffith where the Liberal candidate at the general election, Bill Glasson, would be a strong prospect if he runs. Glasson slashed Rudd’s vote to 53 per cent after preferences.
The by-election will be an early statement by voters on the Abbott government, as it fights a hostile Senate for the immediate repeal of the carbon and mining taxes. It will be a first sharp test for opposition leader Bill Shorten and Labor’s tactics of refusing to accept that the Coalition has a “mandate” to get rid of the carbon tax.
In his speech, Rudd indicated his family had had enough and said statements since the election had been deeply hurtful “for our family”. Although he was not specific, a number of Labor figures had declared following the election that Rudd should quit.
“My family have given their all for me in public life, and for the nation. It is now time I gave something back to them.”
He said returning to the prime ministership this year “wasn’t a task for the faint-hearted”.
“I was glad that together we were able to save the furniture, and in fact I think do considerably better than that.
“I am glad all you folks on the frontbench were returned in one piece as well.” Labor was “a fighting force for the next election”.
The ALP had begun the process of party reform and that must continue. He looked forward to a full democratic preselection process to choose the Labor candidate in Griffith.
Wishing Opposition Leader Bill Shorten well, Rudd said that from his own experience he knew “there are always long dark nights of the soul” in that job.
But “morning does come, often sooner than you think. I have every confidence he will lead Labor’s return to the Treasury benches”.
Rudd said he bore no one in the Parliament any malice but exhorted MPs to “be gentle with each other”.
He still held to what he said in his first speech to Parliament 15 years ago – that politics was about power and that he believed in the politics of hope not fear.
“I set out to achieve many things as PM – in some of these I succeeded, in others I did not.”
When the history was written, detached from the passion of our time, “perhaps it will be remembered that we did navigate Australia through the worst global economic crisis since the depression without a recession,” he said.
“As a nation we finally delivered an official apology to Aboriginal Australia. Nothing has brought me greater joy in political life than the smiles I have seen on the faces of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, young and old, country and city, as a result of the apology.”
He plans to establish a National Apology Foundation to keep alive the spirit and substance of the 2008 apology.
He will continue to support the “great causes” of homelessness, organ donation and multicultural Australia. He will also be active in the international community “in areas where I can make a genuine contribution to peace and stability, global economic governance and sustainable development including climate change”. He would focus on China’s future in the region and the world.
Abbott paid tribute to Rudd for his achievement in triumphing in 2007 over John Howard, “the person whom I believe to have been the most successful PM in modern Australian times”.
The Prime Minister said Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people was something to crown “an amazing public life”. Rudd had done, with courage, decency and compassion, something that Howard had lacked the imagination to do.
Turnbull, who lost his leadership after he sought to do a deal with the Rudd government over an emissions trading scheme, contrasted his own fall with the removal of Rudd.
While he had lost in a “fair fight” over policy, “the betrayal of you as leader of your party was one of the most shocking events I’ve ever witnessed in politics”.
The idea that the man who had won in a presidential campaign against Howard was “discarded like another course on a lazy Susan in a Vietnamese restaurant, the cruelty of it, was extraordinary”.
He said that Rudd’s resilience and determination, derided by many of his colleagues, was “an example to us all”.
Shorten said most fair minded people believed that Rudd’s contribution in returning to the prime ministership had helped Australian democracy, because although Labor lost the election, the opposition was strong enough in numbers to be able to help keep the government accountable.
“I do not believe that we will see his like again in the Australian parliament,” Shorten said. “Even his harshest critics, of which there are some, would say that he does have a special relationship with the Australian people.”
During his campaign for the Labor leadership in September, Shorten declared: “The era of the messiah is over. No more messiahs.”
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.