How Did Australia Come to This?

Graeme Dobell, reviewing a new book on the Rudd Era, examines an inevitable outcome and a bizarre election

Instant history doesn’t come any better than Canberra Times journalist Nicholas Stuart’s immediate accounting of the Rudd era. Rudd’s Way is well written because the writing wasn’t instant. Stuart started thinking about, talking about and penning this account as Labor took office in November 2007. And he sent off the last of his 90,000 words eight days after the Labor caucus committed Ruddicide.

The book is a useful window on a most bizarre election: the Opposition running against the Government’s record, the new Prime Minister running away from that record. The campaign weirdness is founded in a unique lack: both sides are offering usurpers rather than incumbents.

If you wake up on the other side of Saturday’s vote and wonder how Oz came to this, the Stuart account offers guidance and some perspective. While I needed a three-part series last year to grapple with the dysfunctional nature of the Rudd experience, Stuart nails it in one paragraph:

“Rudd appeared unable to delegate. His office was nicknamed the ‘black hole,’ because briefs would vanish and nothing would emerge. The government’s agenda appeared to swing suddenly and wildly. One moment there would be frenzied progress on an issue until, if it seemed intractable, it would simply be left in limbo.”

As a columnist for The Canberra Times and author of two previous books on The Kevin, Nick Stuart is an experienced journalist who is a known part of the Canberra milieu. Thus, he could quietly gather the quotes and insights that light up Rudd’s Way. Here’s the acid judgment of a senior public servant on Rudd’s mode of operation:

“The man’s output is negligible. He gets wound up around the detail, and loses the plot. You’d be concerned if a dep sec (deputy secretary) was working like this, but because he’s PM, he can get away with it.”

Or consider this from a Labor minister, not long after taking office, as the polls were still soaring. The minister complained that Rudd was “a bloody perfectionist micro-manager” who, more seriously, “couldn’t give a rat’s about what the party’s policy actually is.” Then the minister paused for a long moment before concluding: “Thank goodness he’s no good at it; otherwise we’d really be up the creek.”

Stuart kicks off his account with two wonderful bits that serve as painful metaphors for Rudd’s leadership. One is what became the empty talkfest of the 2020 Summit. The other is the ABC TV comedy series that became a must-see Canberra-in-Wonderland version of the Kevin world: The Hollowmen.

Stuart reflects that the show drew its title from the TS Eliot poem that ends in emptiness, “not with a bang but a whimper.” The Hollowmen vision of Canberra’s West Wing played for laughs merely by shifting reality a few degrees sideways:

The episodes show the prime minister’s staff, shorn of any idealism or principle, shamelessly manipulating their way through daily events focussed on one simple objective: “winning” the week. Their aim is simply to trump the opposition. Nothing exists for a moment longer than the current polling cycle. Only lip service is given to party values: principles are completely displaced by the desire to retain power. Being in government has become an end in itself.

Don’t just take Stuart’s word for the Canberra mood. Consider this line last Friday from another observer, Verona Burgess, who has spent more years than she wants to remember writing on the machinations and machinery of the Canberra public service: “It is difficult to explain to people outside the capital just how loathed Kevin Rudd had become among large sections of the Australian Public Service (let alone the caucus) and why.”

Rudd’s Way gives both the why and the how.

Graeme Dobell writes for The Interpreter, the blog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

www.lowyinterpreter.org

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