Lamentations from a Rudd Lurvie

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On this place I try to maintain what some might call balance, preferring to discuss political strategy and trends so that I might avoid becoming a cheerleader for the policies or character of any individual politician or political party. The truth is however that concealing my political views to try and avoid being pigeonholed as one thing or another doesn’t change the content of what I write, my writing is either contains bias or it does not, whether the bias (or lack thereof) reflects the way I vote is immaterial. On this day, as the bearer of most of my political hopes for the past seven years finally calls it a day, I’m ready to be upfront.

Politics is a complex field and as such there is no preponderant reason why I ended up a supporter of  Kevin Rudd. There is instead a large matrix of factors which have led me here. An appropriate place to start is John Howard.

I was born in 1991; I was five when Paul Keating left office. I grew up having never known anything other than a John Howard led government. I also grew up in a household that was both religious and politically aware. Very early on in life the importance of showing compassion and humanity to asylum seekers impressed upon me. It is inescapably consistent with Christ’s message to extend the arm of compassion to the most vulnerable and most ill treated in society. It is inescapably contrary to Christ’s message to take an innocent, traumatised victim of persecution and receive them as though they are an enemy. It remains to this day the political issue about which I care most. There are sound moral arguments in favour of deterrence with regards to asylum seeker policy, however painful it may be to confront we cannot in good faith approach the issue without having regard for deaths at sea, but the Howard government did the unforgiveable, it demonised refugees and asylum seekers. For its own political game it confected lies and stoked the embers of xenophobia to mobilize a public hatred towards those who had already suffered more than any human should ever have to endure. That was enough to entrench my antipathy for Howard and the antipathy still remains.

Having spent my whole life never knowing any government but Howard’s it was therefore mind numbingly predictable that in 2006 when it became clear he  was capable of ending Howard’s reign that I found myself in Rudd’s cheer squad. As I grew more politically literate (at a much earlier age than is healthy) I developed into a fairly predictable young lefty: big on gay rights, reconciliation and closing the gap, climate action, the republic, pro Palestine and against the war in Iraq. For a long time I was conflicted in my loyalties between Rudd Labor and Bob Brown’s Greens. What I really wanted was a dominant Kevin Rudd leading a comfortable majority in the lower house like during 42nd parliament of Australia, and a Labor/Green alliance having a reliable majority in the Senate as per the 43rd parliament.

For better or worse my conflicted support for both Brown and Rudd was never tested. I was only 17 when they went to the polls in 2007, by the time I got to cast my first vote in 2010 Rudd had been replaced by Julia Gillard and by the time Rudd returned in 2013, Bob Brown had retired from public life. What was clear though, was that while I tended to like most of Bob Brown’s fellow Green Senators, I wasn’t an enormous fan of the Labor Party sans Rudd. I couldn’t pinpoint any examples but by the beginning of 2009 enough imperceptible signs had emerged to convince me  that a significant rump of senior Labor figures were concerned that David Flint was correct in claiming that their progressive causes were causing them to lose touch with the electorate and so they attempted to drag Labor to the right.

I also became conscious of an apparent lack of political acumen among senior  Labor MP’s. Lindsay Tanner was formidable and Tanya Plibersek could sell ice to Eskimos but they were anomalies among an otherwise uninspiring bunch. Wayne Swan, Penny Wong and Stephen Smith were utterly ridiculous, both in rigorous interviews and in parliament they would constantly pivot to awkward, prewritten lines, never engaging their interlocutor and generally looking absolutely terrified. Nicola Roxon and Stephen Conroy were confident enough but they seemed perfectly at ease behaving in an odiously obnoxious, confrontational way in full view of the national media. Julia Gillard was better than most and was a capable advocate for Labor as a mere minister but she had some major weaknesses too. Like her former parliamentary ally Mark Latham she seemed to take the politics as a boxing match metaphor way too seriously. She exuded conflict, intensity, aggression and sent uncommitted voters scurrying into the warm embrace of the Liberal Party.

A turning point for me was a Qanda special in 2009 involving Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard. As you’d expect on an ABC program, particularly at the height of Labor’s popularity, the audience was mostly supportive of Gillard at the start. While the audience laughed heartily at Gillard’s jokes they were snarling as interrogated Turnbull about Godwin Grech, only a liar or a fool would deny that she enjoyed the proverbial a home ground advantage. But something strange was happening over the course of the hour, her constant sniping at Turnbull and her impassioned rhetoric, contrasting unflatteringly with Turnbull’s warm geniality and politeness, began to wear thin with the audience. By the end of the episode they were on Turnbull’s side and he was on the attack; the warm and fluffy old man was gone instead he was cracking jokes and making funny-but-true criticism of Gillard and Labor which the audience was lapping up. I recall thinking at the time that Labor would be in trouble if she ever led the party, fortunately, I reassured myself, she had to get through Rudd first.

2010 was a disappointing year. As Rudd began to edge away from that which I’d liked most about him; his commitment to climate change and his comparatively compassionate treatment of refugees and asylum seekers; I would console myself with the certainty that Rudd would beat Abbot at the election, a moderate like Joe Hockey would become leader of the Liberal Party and we’d be able to return to a more progressive government after the election. Still the rumours and whispers persisted that inside Labor those surrounding Rudd were becoming increasingly spooked by the myth of Howard’s Battlers. Clearly things were nowhere near as good as they’d been for Labor twelve months earlier, but there was never any serious cause for concern. Then June 23rd arrived, we found out via the twitter hashtag #spill. It was over before we even knew it was on. Rudd’s press conference late at night ahead of the ballot the next morning confirmed much of what I’d suspected for a long time. Within the Labor party he had been resisting a concerted push to lurch to the right on a whole raft of issues including my precious asylum seekers.  As we all know the next day he lost the ballot and then he gave that speech.

I had an exam on the 25th of June 2010, I should have been studying but instead I sat glued to the television for most of the 24th. I was despairing, Rudd had offered safeness, while he was there I was sure that an Abbott lead opposition was not a tangible threat to Labor’s re-election. Now Rudd was gone and Labor’s re-election was trusted to a protégé of Latham. As the day wore on it got worse, Lindsay Tanner was resigning. The two cabinet ministers who seemed capable of kicking around their Liberal counterparts were both gone in the space of a few hours. I didn’t think it could get any worse, then Gillard commenced governing.

First she announced the mining tax was being watered down something spectacular, then she ruled out pricing carbon until something called a citizens assembly was able to establish a national consensus  and then she started ramping up the anti-immigration rhetoric and attempted to introduce the so called East Timor Solution. It felt like every day brought with it another capitulation to neoconservatives.  All my life I’d waited for a left of centre government and now Gillard was undoing it in the space of a few weeks. What’s more they were then surprised when Abbott’s polling number surged. This was the most baffling part, that the eggheads running Labor’s campaign didn’t realize that by proclaiming that Tony Abbott had been right at every juncture that in the public eye they were conceding his suitability to be Prime Minister.

I suppose I can’t discuss the 2010 campaign without mentioning the leaks which are supposed to have destroyed Labor’s campaign. The leaks were obviously intended to embarrass Julia Gillard, just as the individual who leaked the deferral of the ETS to Lenore Taylor in April 2010 (hullo Wayne) and the individual who leaked internal polling to Andrew Bolt in June were obviously trying to embarrass Rudd. What I do reject is that Labor would have won the election but for the leaks. The idea that there is a significant block of people out there who were going to vote Labor, heard about the leaks then on that basis decided to vote for Tony Abbott, is to me absurd. The whole argument demonstrates to me not so much a lack of political understanding, but a limited understanding of basic human nature. People don’t vote behave that way. People offer a spectacular range of explanations as to why why they voted the way they did in 2010, the leaks are never among them.

Moving on, if I’d thought it was ever possible for Julia Gillard to beat Tony Abbott next time they faced off I would have deplored Rudd’s attempts at a comeback, but she was finished on August 10 2010. She had gone to the election as Prime Minister, the public had been given a chance to vote for her and they had declined this opportunity. Whatever Constitutional rights she may have had to form a minority government, outside of the beltway she was an unelected Prime Minister who was defying the election result. A brilliantly charismatic and articulate politician might have been able to just get away with such a feat but the woman who’d gotten schooled by Malcolm Turnbull on national television just twelve months earlier had no chance.

I have no doubts that Rudd’s motives for destabilizing Gillard’s leadership were less than pure, but they coincided with the interests of left of centre politics in Australia. If Julia Gillard was allowed to contest a second election against Tony Abbott she would lose, this was something about which I had no doubts.  Still I never envisioned either party would go to such self destructive lengths as Gillard and her backers employed in February 2012. Savagely denigrating one of their own live on national television, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson, Nicola Roxon, Simon Crean, Tony Burke and Stephen Conroy inflicted more harm to Labor’s electoral fortunes in the space of a week than John Howard did in his thirty years in parliament. Whatever Rudd’s faults and the list is long, he never so unequivocally and comprehensively criticised his caucus colleagues in public. It was akin to strapping oneself with dynamite then crash tackling your rival.  The scorched earth attack of February 2012 did irreparable damage to Rudd, but it did as much if not more harm to the standing of those who lead the charge.

Despite the damage done in February 2012, poll after poll still suggested Rudd could be competitive against Abbott and I hoped against hope that all was not yet lost. On the frontline Gillard and her team were becoming ever more haphazard in their attempts to regain control of the news cycle. The relentless repetitions of clunky slogans like “cut to the bone”, the humiliating over promising on budget surpluses and the race to the bottom on asylum seekers was buoying Abbott on to unfathomable heights. Even Gillard’s devastating misogyny speech was undermined by her clunky and misguided attempts to recreate the magic like the silly speech about blue ties.

Eventually it finally happened, despite Simon Crean’s best attempts to stop it happening, then his clumsy attempt to make it happen, the Labor factions finally capitulated to the looming threat of an Abbott whitewash and Rudd was restored. I wrote at the time that the election was Abbott’s to lose and for a while it looked as though he might do just that. Rudd’s return was all insouciance as he waxed lyrical about debt and deficit, upped the ante over Indonesia by invoking Konfrontasi and began banging the drum for same sex marriage. None of this was enough to reverse three years of self destruction for Labor but Abbott’s reaction might have done.

There is no doubting that Abbott’s initial reaction to Rudd’s resurrection was panic.  His initial press conference, parliamentary performances and interviews after Rudd returned were appalling. His frenetic performances exuded a debilitating lack of self confidence which if sustained over a decent period of time would hamper his ability to campaign effectively. I banked on that when I brazenly predicted Labor would win the 2013 election. Abbott did regain his composure however and with it Rudd lost his sting. They fought commendably, Rudd and Bowen in particular but the result was predetermined before Rudd even came back. Spooking Abbott into a meltdown was Rudd’s only real chance of winning and once Abbott got his focus back, it was only ever a question of “by how much?”

I suppose given what I’ve said earlier about asylum seekers I should mention Rudd’s Papua New Guinea Solution, announced weeks before he called the election. It sat uneasily with me but I distinguish it from Gillard and Abbott in two ways. The first is the rhetoric surrounding the decision. There was no demonization of refugees and asylum seekers this time and no pandering to irrational concerns about boarder security. He spoke about stopping people drowning at sea and he spoke about smashing the people smuggler model. This mattered to me and  it stills does, it sets Rudd apart from Howard, Gillard and Abbott as the only Prime Minister in my living memory who declined to fan the flames of racism for political gain. The other distinction was that Rudd wasn’t detaining refugees and asylum seekers indefinitely as Howard, Gillard and Abbott all did, he was resettling them in Papua New Guinea. This distinction matters because the humanitarian concern involved in mandatory detention is not just the idea of punishing people for seeking asylum, but the prolonged uncertainty about their future for people still reeling from previous trauma has dire consequences. I would prefer more people were granted refuge in Australia, exponentially more people, but if the choice is indefinite detention on Malaysia/Nauru/East Timor or resettlement in Papua New Guinea I’d grudgingly take the latter.

After he lost on September 7 I knew that we would never again have Prime Minister Rudd, that the dream was finally over for good. But then I’d known that on June 24th 2010 and somehow he came back. While I never seriously countenanced the idea of  a Deakinesque third coming there was always the elusive conceptual possibility, now it’s so definitive. After seven years of shouldering the my hopes that we could first defeat John Howard, then later keep Tony Abbott at bay the dream is finally over.

So thank you, former Prime Minister Rudd, for apologizing to the stolen generation, for throwing yourself into Closing the Gap and Return to Country initiatives with a greater fervour than any of your predecessors or successors, for removing more than eighty pieces of legislation which discriminated against Same Sex Couples, for your impassioned defence not just of Same Sex Marriage but the morality of homosexuality from a Christian stand point, for ratifying the Kyoto protocol, for your efforts to bring about a global agreement on climate action, for the apology to the Forgotten Australians, for the introduction of a paid parental leave scheme, for increasing the aged pension,  for the investment in schools and education, for stewarding Australia through the global economic crisis, for repealing Workchoices and introducing the Fair Work Act and for abolishing Temporary Protection Visas and Detention Debt. Thank you also for your work as Minister for Foreign Affairs, setting up a no fly zone above Syria, setting up relief efforts in Japan following the 2011 Tsunami and for your patronage of the “It Gets Better” campaign.

Thank you and good luck.

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