Was it just a dream? After seven years of malaise, it seems almost unfathomable that public satisfaction with our politicians was at a stratospheric high for the three years preceding it. Yet from 2007-2010 Australia underwent a brief era of blissful optimism. Confidence in the Australian political class reached highs not seen in decades, perhaps ever.
Today Australia mistrusts Kevin. He’s perceived as manipulative and self-important, the very mention of his name elicits scowls. While Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Julia Gillard received rapturous applause at the funeral of Gough Whitlam, Rudd was received in hostile silence. To the political class he is a pariah, to the wider community he is just another politician who promised the world and didn’t deliver. But even now, even amongst his greatest detractors there is a strange allure to Kevin Michael Rudd. When that beaming countenance appears on 7:30 or Lateline we can but look on. People mistrust him deeply, but the vision for government he once offered them is still incredibly seductive.
At a basic level Rudd was popular because he had promised a suite of policies which were broadly reflective of public attitudes. Repealing Workchoices, an emissions trading scheme, a National Broadband Network, increased schools funding, a federal government hospitals takeover and The Apology were all popular, unremarkable initiatives that Labor were able to hoover up thanks to the intransigence of the Howard government. This practical and attainable wish list from the electorate gave Rudd a popular mandate of a kind not enjoyed by any of his successors. But this only tells a fraction of the story.
In 2007 the political class was widely perceived to be arrogant, complacent and rife with cronyism. Rudd read this dissatisfaction and roundly condemned it as such. It was in many ways an earlier, less vulgar incarnation of Donald Trump’s “Drain the swamp” mantra. Like Trump, Rudd anointed himself the voice of a popular movement but he didn’t threaten to lock up his political opponents, instead he set about building a sort of cross party coalition against the old guard. Tim Fischer, Amanda Vanstone, Brendan Nelson and Peter Costello were soon enlisted in Rudd’s mission to return politics to the people. Rudd’s message was all about putting aside our differences and working together to regain the people’s trust: with him at the summit of course.
He condemned the old rules, relied upon by Howard and his predecessors that were skewed unfairly in favour of the government and announced that he would set about redressing the balance. He changed the standing orders of parliament, he reformed political advertising laws and tightened the ministerial code of conduct around lobbyists and fundraising
This very public, very performative act of selflessness on Rudd’s part was greeted with near universal euphoria. Rudd’s polling exploded to unprecedented heights and to a degree, he dragged Turnbull up with him. Excepting a month or two around the fateful Utegate affair, Turnbull’s approval rating generally stayed above 40. As opposition leaders Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott could only dream of such numbers. By any reading of the polls, there was a widespread contentment with the parliament. The public liked Rudd and they approved of the direction Turnbull and Hockey were dragging the Liberal Party.
Still there was yet more to Rudd. Bob Brown had been railing against nepotism and the like for a decade without ever enjoying Rudd’s popularity. Donald Trump’s “Drain the swamp” slogan has not won him half the public adulation that Rudd enjoyed. In part, we might chalk this up to the fact that Rudd was not truly an outsider like Brown or Trump. He was an insider that was prepared to rat on his own class. Rudd managed to reconcile the seemingly contradictory impulses of the electorate to overhaul the system without creating chaos. He represented a sort of benign revolution, a purge of the cronyism without bringing the whole structure crashing down.
Eventually the sheen wears off all politicians but the downfall of Rudd was unique. When he went down, he took the political class with him. The reasons for Rudd’s demise are many and complex but the damage it did to the image of politicians was immense. Voters believed in the vision Rudd had offered them and the failure of this vision was a crushing disappointment the like of which few have felt before or since.
2010 humiliated the Australian public. They had allowed themselves to suspend their cynicism, to be more idealistic. The disappointment hardened them spectacularly. Rudd’s successors would be hobbled by the renewed distrust the public now reserved for politicians. They once believed that the political class had turned a corner. Not just Rudd, the whole class. For this brief period, everything seemed so civilised and virtuous. Now they feel let down and betrayed.
Since the fall of Rudd; many have attempted to win the nations heart in the way Rudd did and all have failed. A spurned lover who gave its heart willingly and had it broken in return. It won’t do it again anytime soon.
Today Rudd is a busted flush, but what he once represented is still spectacularly charismatic. Ten years on Australia lives in the shadow of 2007. It realised what it wanted then, but no politician since Rudd has truly offered it. And until they do, the malaise will go on.