For many Australians the relationship between Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull been a source of fascination. The two political outsiders who defied their parties traditional power structures and were consequently toppled in unpopular coups captured the imagination of the electorate with their seeming ability to transcend the political divide. On more than one occasion fanciful commentators have even discussed the idea of these two unusual politicians joining together to form a new political party.
During the period of Julia Gillard’s premiership there was a symbiosis between Rudd and Turnbull. The pair furthered their own leadership ambitions by encouraging commentators to compare and contrast their seemingly civil and constructive relationship with the acrimonious exchanges between Gillard and Tony Abbott. The better the two seemed to get along, the worse the real leaders looked by comparison. And yet Turnbull was always the weaker performer in this pas de deux.
When the pair appeared on the ABC’s QandA together it was Rudd who dominated the proceedings while Turnbull played second fiddle. When the pair faced off as Prime Minister and Opposition leader in 08/09 as rivals rather than collaborators Rudd was easily the victor. In part this may be because Turnbull is the more genuine of the two. While Rudd cultivated the image of an outsider with meticulous care, Turnbull let authenticity do the talking. Ultimately Rudd’s strategy proved vastly more potent than Turnbull’s sincerity and Member for Goldman Sachs, as Rudd was wont to dub him, walked away with his tail between his legs.
Given Turnbull’s political success has often been as a result of piggybacking off of Rudd’s, and that when pitted against one another Turnbull has repeatedly come off as the loser, refusing to nominate Rudd for the position of UN Secretary General was what some may term a politically courageous decision. At its most basic level Turnbull has said that a man the Australian public repeatedly adjudged to be a better choice for Prime Minister was “unsuitable” for the UN role. More to the point he has now made an enemy of arguably the most vicious and effective political campaigners in the country.
The history of Rudd’s political career has been that once he gets a target in his sites he does not relent. As Foreign Affairs spokesperson Laurie Brereton was humiliated time and time again by the career diplomat backbencher Kevin Rudd who would pop up in the media to offer a contradict Brereton. Rudd with his professorial manner and his foreign affairs expertise shrunk the stature of poor Shadow Minister until Rudd’s appointment to Brereton’s portfolio was inevitable. Next in Rudd’s sights was Alexander Downer, then Kim Beazley, John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard.
Even Tony Abbott who won the 2013 election was maneuvered by Rudd into making the fateful promise of no cuts to health, education, pensions, the ABC or SBS. Politically therefore it should have been irresistible for Turnbull to nominate Rudd for the UN job. A joint presser with the two enigmatic Prime Ministers standing side by side, soaring above the political divide, exchanging folksy banter, lavishing compliments upon one another would have been a huge PR victory for Turnbull. Instead Rudd now haunts Turnbull as he haunted Gillard before him. The bookish former Prime Minister writing patronizing commentaries on the current government will be a fixture at least until the next election.
The cruel irony is that Turnbull has likely made the right decision. If the accounts of Rudd’s first government offered by the likes of Gillard, Swan, Roxon, Burke, Emerson and Garrett are proximate to accuracy then Rudd would have been poor Secretary-General of the UN. And yet this perception of Rudd never fully filtered through to the public consciousness. And the perception that has reached the public is that Turnbull has been strongarmed by Cory Bernardi and his ilk into acting pettily. In politics this perception is crucial, voters need to be able to trust the buck ultimately stops with the man atop the pyramid. Just as voters could never trust Gillard so long as they suspected her of being answerable to Paul Howes and Karl Bitar, so too will the voters be unable to trust a weakened Malcolm Turnbull.
Perhaps Turnbull is softening up the hard right for a string of disappointments. It would certainly be to Turnbull’s political advantage to offer a free vote on same sex marriage and offering the DelCons a few early victories might improve their behaviour in the face of such a disappointment. But if he has he’s taken an enormous risk, Rudd is a formidable media performer and will likely prove a greater thorn in Turnbull’s side than Cory Bernardi or George Christensen could ever hope to be. And the perception that Turnbull is not a part of the old political boys clubs, that he is somehow above the cynical cronyism, that’s dead and buried. Rudd will make sure of that.