Rudd’s triumph of style over substance

Where Julia Gillard failed to win favour with the media and electorate, Kevin Rudd has been victorious. But his success is built on hollow rhetoric and hypocrisy.

Make no mistake – the ‘knifing’ of Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd and his supporters cannot be equated with the internal party moves that ended Rudd’s first stint as prime minister in 2010. They are qualitatively different events.

In 2010, an unpopular and incompetent prime minster was removed by the parliamentary Labor Party – very suddenly, and to the suprise of the news media.

In 2013, an unpoplar, but far more competent prime minister was removed by the co-ordinated handywork of two elites – one was the small band of ‘backgrounding’ MPs known as the ‘Rudd camp’, and the other was a select number of top journalists happy to be spoon-fed reports of Rudd’s popularity within the party, until the repeated reporting of that fact became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, media reports, including frequent tweeting of ‘facts’ by journalists yesterday, in particular that there was a petition doing the rounds of Labor MPs’ offices that would precipitate a leadership spill, is what flushed the beseiged Julia Gillard out to call the special Caucus meeting that took place yesterday at 1900 AEST.

Democracy is the poorer for yesterday’s events.

There is no doubt that Rudd believes most of his own rhetoric, but that does not mean that his view of events is sound.

To Rudd and and handful of hard-core supporters – as opposed to the recent wave of supporter simply terrified by the prospect of losing their seats – the 2010 ‘coup’ was unjust, unjustified and a betrayal of the Australian people by the ‘faceless men’ of the union movement and their Caucus cronies.

That tale has been told many times, but so too have the tales of Rudd’s chaotic management style, his bypassing of proper cabinet process, his rages, caprice and general egotistical unpleasantness. Those stories have been confirmed to this columnist over three years by public servants, lobbyists and MPs from all corners of the parliament.

Julia Gillard’s tenure as prime minister was strongly in contrast to that. She ran a fairly efficient cabinet process; negotiated major legislative reforms such as the national disability insurance scheme, Gonski education reforms and carbon pricing within a minority government setting; and by and large her starting point for these packages was expert opinion and consultation – not the case with some major Rudd projects such as the resource super profits tax and the changes to the border protection regime.

Gillard’s failing was all on the political side. She did not present well in front of cameras – despite being a strong performer in parliament – and she flew in a communications director, John McTernan, whose UK-spin-prowess proved utterly counterproductive in the Australian context.

By contrast, Rudd’s success is all on the political side – the voters love him, despite his major failing on the policy and governance fronts during his first stint as prime minister.

In his first speech to journalists late last night, he said: “In 2007, the Australian people elected me to be their prime minister. That is a task that I resume today with humility, honour and an important sense of energy and purpose.”

While he will no doubt bring a great deal of energy and purpose to the role of PM, as he did before, humility and honour are not hallmarks of his past three years in the wilderness.

Rudd is widely credited with all but scuppering Labor’s election campaign in 2010 with a series of damaging leaks against Gillard.

And when minority government was finally formed, Rudd first jetted around the globe as foreign minister to such an extent that many people still thought he was prime minister – not a lot of ‘humility’ about those performances.

Moreover, he began a sustained period of white-anting Gillard’s leadership – he never left the headlines as leader of the ‘Rudd camp’ and Labor went through the farce of three challenges. In the second challenge, Rudd enraged supporters by failing even to stand in the spill called by Gillard. There’s not a lot of ‘honour’ in any of that.

Rudd also said last night: “In recent years politics has failed the Australian people. There’s just been too much negativity all around. There’s been an erosion of trust. Negative, destructive, personal politics. It’s done much to bring dishonour to our parliament, but has done nothing to address the urgent challenges facing our nation...In fact it’s been holding out country back.”

What cant. What hypocrisy.

While the first female prime minister oversaw a government that passed 590 pieces of legislation, and in fact worked tirelessly to negotiate and consult to create policy repsonses to the “urgent challenges facing our nation”, the lurking presence of Rudd and his supporters poisoned the politics of these endeavours at every turn.

The news cycles of the 43rd parliament have far too often been dominated by ‘leadership’ stories, meaning real policy debate – including stories of Labor's successes – was pushed off the front pages.

The wounds Labor inflicted upon itself yesterday will take many years to heal – if they can be healed at all. The Rudd resurrection is a triumph of style over substance that must now be overlooked, in as far as it is possible to do so, to ask ‘What policies will Labor offer the Australian people?’

All the rancorous division within Labor, which Rudd has had such a hand in creating, must be pushed aside for the good of the nation.

Policy is policy – and with the ‘leadership question’ resolved, the hand-picked journalists who helped shape this shameful chapter of history would do well to return their gaze to the policy choices both sides of politics will put forward before the election.