The picture of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership painted over the weekend by former speechwriter Jamie Button ought to be fatal to Rudd’s leadership bid. It jibes with a number of other assessments, including some just this week by senior Cabinet ministers like Nicola Roxon. To the best of my knowledge, Button’s is a pretty accurate picture:
“The truth is, Rudd was impossible to work with. He regularly treated his staff, public servants and backbenchers with rudeness and contempt. He was vindictive, intervening to deny people appointments or preselections, often based on grudges that went back years.
“He made crushing demands on his staff, and when they laboured through the night to meet those demands, they received no thanks, and often the work was not used. People who dared stand up to him were put in ‘the freezer’ and not consulted or spoken to for months. The prodigious loyalty of his staff to him was mostly not repaid. He put them down behind their backs. He seemed to feel that everyone was always letting him down. In meetings, as I saw, he could emanate a kind of icy rage that was as mysterious as it was disturbing.
“He governed by – seemed almost to thrive on – crisis. Important papers went unsigned, staff and public servants would be pulled onto flights, in at least one case halfway around the world, on the off chance that he needed to consult them. Vital decisions were held up while he struggled to make up his mind, frequently demanding more pieces of information that merely delayed the final result. The fate of the government seemed to hinge on the psychology of one man.
“As I watched this unfold in Canberra, I tried hard to put aside my own poor experience of working for Rudd. I had also been a journalist for more than 20 years, and I knew that just because three people complain about something or someone it does not make it true. When 30 or more witnesses do, you can start to believe it.”
That account is all the more compelling because Jamie Button has a deserved reputation as an upright and decent journalist. And he’s the son of much-missed ALP hero John Button to boot.
The move to reinstall Kevin Ruddd as prime minister is frequently described in terms of “saving the furniture”, a way of saying that Rudd will lose the ALP less seats than Gillard at the next election.
But Labor’s biggest problem may not be that it will lose a lot of seats at the next election.
Losing a bag of seats is pretty much a given. The 2012 or 2013 election will almost certainly not repeat the events of 1993, with Labor coming from behind to score an upset win. (If Labor did come from behind, it would probably require the sort of dubious policies – notably those cancelled L-A-W tax cuts – that helped hand Labor such a big loss one election later, in 1996.) Labor’s fate at the next election seems written at this point.
But winning the next election is not the only game the ALP must play. Labor’s biggest problem may instead be something worse.
Consider. Two of its past four leaders – Latham and Rudd – have been in their different ways dysfunctional. In both cases, but especially in the case of Rudd, that dysfunctionality has now been pretty well documented in a way that will linger for years. And still today, many in the ALP are talking more loudly in public about the need to beat Tony Abbott than they are about the need to run a good government.
In short, the ALP now faces a “good government” challenge as big as the “economic management” challenge it faced in 1975. In the wake of the Whitlam government, Labor’s greatest struggle was to convince voters it could be trusted with the economy. After Rudd, its biggest problem may be that voters do not trust it with the machinery of government. After the ructions of the federal and NSW parties, voters may start to worry that the ALP will install someone who can beat the Coalition regardless of whether they can run a government. If that happens, Labor will start to find that it doesn’t matter who they put in the leadership: the ALP brand has been so damaged that voters start to be much less trusting of whoever is leader, and whatever ideas they offer.
“Good government” has never been one of the ALP’s most beloved phrases. When you speak to the ALP, you speak of being a “reforming government” or even a “crusading government”. The party has an underdog mentality: it thinks that when it gets in, it shakes up the place and then, in its favorite tragic story, inevitably loses.
That mentality needs to change now. In the past 40 years the ALP has been in government as often as out of it. It won’t be easy, but “good government” is now a quality the ALP has to add to its brand.
That’s an argument for keeping Julia Gillard as PM, no matter what she polls. But more importantly, it’s the challenge for the ALP to 2020 and beyond.