Kevin, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

Illustration: Lobbecke
Illustration: Lobbecke

I’m not a fan of Kevin Rudd. This antipathy has very little to do with politics and everything to do with good government.

My view was formed during Rudd’s previous tenure as Prime Minister when I was an industry lobbyist. I witnessed endless briefs being prepared by harried departmental officials who were required to be on-call 24/7 in order to be able to respond to the whims of a micro-manager Prime Minister who nevertheless seemed incapable of making decisions. Meanwhile, ministers shrugged in meetings saying they couldn’t make decisions without Kevin’s imprimatur, which was rarely forthcoming.

I was told by government staffers of an overflowing in-tray on the Prime Minister’s desk where the briefs languished as the PM chased down the latest news cycle or instructed ministers to tell their departments to prepare briefs on his latest thought bubble. I read about the senior government officials who were left gathering dust like the briefs, literally waiting hours outside the Prime Minister’s office for an audience with the man.

The wheels of government virtually ground to a halt during Rudd’s first term. Or perhaps the image of wheels spinning without traction or progress is more apt. My friends in Canberra political and departmental circles openly contemplated whether it would take the psychological breakdown of a staffer or departmental official to end the manic cycle of never-to-be-read briefs being prepared over weekends and late into the night.

Sure, the first Rudd Government had some notable achievements. Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol, apologised to the Stolen Generations and, along with Treasurer Wayne Swan (and Treasury Secretary Ken Henry) successfully steered Australia through the Global Financial Crisis.

But in many other respects, Rudd lived up to the epithet levelled at him at the time. He “hit the ground reviewing” rather than taking action on the issues that were presented to him. The star-studded and ultimately pointless talkfest, the Australia 2020 Summit, was followed by more substantial reviews including the Henry inquiry into the tax system, the Garnaut review on climate change, the Productivity Commission inquiry into disability care and the Gonski review of school education. While Rudd ham-fistedly implemented only one of the Henry Review recommendations – the mining tax – it was his successor Julia Gillard who progressed the recommendations of the others.

In isolation, having a workaholic micro-manager PM with an aversion to decision-making might not have been a serious problem for Labor. This dysfunction was mostly hidden from the general public, who really couldn’t give two hoots about the machinery of government or its machinations.

In retrospect though, the manic and ill-prepared way that stimulus funding was funnelled into the economy through the Home Insulation Program resulted in the mushrooming of an insulation installation industry that included operators who did not adequately protect their workers. We can only be thankful the more established construction industry was better equipped to deal with the OHS ramifications of the Building the Education Revolution program.

What did matter to voters was that Kevin did not deliver on the high expectations he deliberately created during the Kevin07 campaign. I’ve always had the view that Rudd ran as Howard-lite, the “other” safe pair of hands but with bonus features such as Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Last night on Twitter, former PM Rudd’s media adviser Lachlan Harris effectively confirmed this:

In 07 Rudd’s core strategy was change PM but not Govt. In 13 it’s change Govt but not PM. Libs misread 07. So far doing same in 13.

— Lachlan Harris (@LachlanFHarris) July 8, 2013

Rudd may have won the election because of this strategy, but it was also his downfall. It was voters’ disappointment in Rudd that brought him down in 2010. As I wrote at the time:

I believe the Australian community became deeply angry at Rudd because they finally realised they were the victims of a confidence trick … Voters felt angry and wanted retribution because they felt like a mark struck with the growing realisation they were the subject of a long con.

Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to the 2007 election as Howard-lite. The significance of this strategy cannot be downplayed. Howard did not retain government for nearly 12 years because of his popularity. His electoral appeal was, ironically, grounded in trust. Whether voters liked him or not, whether they supported his policies or not, they trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. And Howard did not betray this trust until he let the power of Senate majority go to his head and he self-indulged his philosophical yearning for IR reform.

Rudd studiously capitalised on Howard’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. He framed himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

Tragically for Rudd, and surprisingly for an experienced diplomat, he made the grave mistake of exaggerating the difference that Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would materially make to global climate change. He should have known full well that ratification meant putting a price on carbon, that this could lead to painful structural change in the Australian economy, and that China and India would not countenance climate action until they had brought their people out of poverty.

Rudd could never deliver on climate change but he promised the Australian people that he could and would. This is only the most prominent of several examples. Like any confidence man, Rudd convincingly promised things that would realise voters’ dreams and others that would allay their fears. The fact that voters eventually saw the small man behind the curtain will always overshadow the fact that he actually did deliver on some of those promises.

By playing a confidence game with the Australian people, instead of being honest with them, Rudd squandered their trust, optimism and (somewhat begrudging) respect.

Perhaps this anger would not have been so intense if the electorate had felt they had been provided with a credible alternative at whose feet they could throw their protest vote. However, voter antipathy for Abbott shows they felt both conned and captured by Rudd’s sleight of hand.

Clearly the ALP apparatchiks who took action this week saw the truth of the matter. They saw the growing number of voters, once vividly depicted by Premier Wayne Goss during Keating’s reign, waiting on their verandas with baseball bats to deal with the Prime Minister who had let them down. So they took their bats to him first.

So Rudd fooled us once, and suffered the consequences. Will he fool us again? And even if he does, will we be able to do anything about it?

In addition to the above illuminating tweet, Lachlan Harris provided an insight into Rudd’s current campaign (although I don’t know whether this is inside information or just an informed observation). This tweet bookends the previous one: last time Rudd was offering voters a change of PM but not the government; this time he’s offering the “change of government they want” without changing the PM:

Rudd’s strategy is giving people the change of govt they want, without having to vote out Labor. Today’s move the heart of that strategy.

— Lachlan Harris (@LachlanFHarris) July 8, 2013

If Harris’ view is accurate, this is a fascinating strategy. And it fits with what Rudd has done since reascending to the big chair.

Rudd’s tackling head-on the things that voters don’t like about today’s ALP. He’s offering a “new improved” Labor Party post-federal election by initiating a review, ahem I mean a clean-out of corruption (and property developers) from the NSW Branch of the party.  He’s proposed to change the Party’s rules so that ALP members get a 50% say in who will be Prime Minister when Labor holds office. And the same proposed rule changes will effectively protect any first term Prime Minister from challenge, so as to provide certainty and none of the leadership musical chairs that has beset Labor during this term. (Yes, you are correct, Rudd is proposing a rule change that would have prevented him removing first term PM, Julia Gillard, from the position. The hypocrisy, it burns.)

In short, Rudd is tossing exhausted dog-paddling non-Coalition voters a life-vest: he’s giving disillusioned Labor voters a reason to stay true and undecided voters a reason to vote against Tony Abbott. If it wasn’t such an over-used term, I’d say Rudd’s approach so far is a game changer.

But …

What if the Rudd-leopard hasn’t changed his spots? What if, like Campbell Newman, he decides that an austerity drive is needed to repair the federal budget? What if his government’s standing with voters goes down the toilet? What if he resorts to pork-barrelling? Or just makes a succession of stupid decisions. What if he took us to war? We won’t know the answer to any of these questions until we elect him and then it will be too late.

Look around the country at the first-term Premiers and ask yourself – should they be immune from removal from office by their party room despite their policy failures or lack of political judgement?

Whatever your answer, the same should apply to Rudd. No party leader should have immunity from the consequences of their actions. Not in a democracy, anyway.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

19 thoughts on “Kevin, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”

  1. First of all … thank you for increasing the font size on your blog!

    Second of all … thanks for this insight. I have taken the ‘interested observer’ position in all of this because … classic swinging voter.

    And what I am finding endlessly fascinating is what a master Rudd is at telling the electorate what they want to hear (and fascinating how no one else seems able to do this thus far). But as you say – telling people what they want to hear only works until you need to deliver. Will be so interesting to see if he really has learned from the mistakes of the past

  2. Thanks Kelly – I’m swinging between utter outrage at what the scumbag did to Julia Gillard and utter fascination at what he’s doing to turn the election around.

    P.S. The font change was inadvertent, but I will make sure it is permanent!

    1. 1. Are you then suggesting that Julia is a scumbag for her earlier treatment of Kevin?
      2. In the interest of balance you will now need to put forward an honest assessment of Tony the alternative. Otherwise your contribution is nothing more than political propaganda.

      1. Julia Gillard did not run a three year campaign to undermine Kevin Rudd. You can find my assessment of Tony Abbott on this blog and in other pieces that I have written. If you were familiar with my writing you would know that I do not support any party.

  3. It amazes me when I hear people say that we elect the Prime Minister, because nothing could be further from the truth. We have sunk into the cult of personality that in US politics, but we do not actually elect our leaders. If Rudd gets this change through then we will see an even higher degree of popularity politics based on polling figures and media representation, rather than governing for the best interests of the country and its people.
    I just think it is a very desperate attempt from a man who knows he’s only been put in charge because he is apparently popular (seriously?!). He has to know that they intend to get rid of him as soon as they can if they win the election?

  4. I agree. Not a fan of Kevin Rudd’s at all, seems a master manipulator to me. Unfortunately, like many others though, Mr Abbott & Co. worry me more, so sadly, if Rudd can stop them, will have to vote that way, even though it rubs me to say so. The only comfort I can find is at least my local ALP candidate is a lovely woman who does actually care about my region, which is more than I can say for the sitting member who has done nothing here since 1990.

  5. Excellent article. My belief is, after 20 years of mentoring new managers, is that those that manage themselves to a standstill are able to maintain some semblence of managing – until a)they feel they no longer have to prove anything to anyone and b)the magnitude and multitude of what they have to manage again creates the ‘deer in the headlights’ inertia that is in their DNA.

    No doubt about it Rudd is PR perfection. But Rudd is an old dog, and as such is unlikely to change his management style at this late stage of the game. It isn’t a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and when again the wheels of government grind to a halt will the ALP be able to do anything to correct it given Rudd’s proposed changes?

  6. As a disillusioned lifelong Labor voter, at present I have every intention of voting informal. Can’t stomach the Liberals, a vote for the Greens is just wasted and goes back to Labor anyway, and as for Labor – it has trashed itself for another 10 years. I doubt very much the Rudd-leopard (nice phrase!) has changed his spots. He will get a good honeymoon by rearranging the deck chairs to fix outstanding problems, but he won’t know what to do with the next real problem that comes along, and he will stuff up…again.
    Any real Labor policy that manages to make it through his in-tray will be just sops to try and keep us quiet while he preens his ego strutting the world stage. The Gillard government reforms will probably come to a juddering halt.

  7. Reblogged this on Iain Hall's SANDPIT and commented:
    The thing about Rudd that I have been critical of for years is the fact that he is all spin and no substance. The experience of Gillard’s disastrous reign makes him look good by comparison. That is the reason that he seems so sweet. As I see it the coalition have been stepping back to some extent to let him over reach , and that is just what Rudd . is doing.

    Cheers Comrade Paula

  8. I think you may have it wrong about why Rudd’s popularity fell in 2010. I don’t think it was because he failed to get a global warming solution, but because he let down all the people he electrified when he declared climate change was the “greatest moral challenge of our time”.

    The ALP was easily able to pass the blame for the first CPRS failing onto the Greens for being too pure for this naughty world, and onto Tony Abbott for being just so gosh-darned unreasonable about “the science”. If Rudd had maintained the public attitude that “The battle’s not over my friends, we shall fight on” instead of meekly looking like he was submitting on a great moral issue to mere politicians, I suspect he could have maintained his public support.

    (Rudd’s fans seem happy to ignore his hypocrisy, and his sociopathy towards colleagues and subordinates – for instance I remember plenty of so-called unionists defending him the time it leaked that he apparently screamed at a junior RAAF OR on his VIP flight over incorrect catering arrangements. What they WON’T ignore is Rudd letting them down on gestures they find really really important).

    Also, the 2020 Summit may well have been useless from the point of view of policymaking, but it was perfect for demonstrating that Rudd’s ideas for governing Australia will *not* be coming from today’s ALP machine. In fact I think the makeup and nature of the 2020 Summit clearly demonstrates Rudd’s vision for the future of the ALP.

  9. What I think is happening is that ALP voters have accepted two things.

    1. That what is done is done to Julia Gillard, even though many are appalled by it.

    2. That if they don’t stick with Rudd, they effectively hand over to Abbott. Coalition members desperately want to see ALP division before the election so that Abbott is propped up, even though they have doubts about his ability, and I’ve no doubt there’ll be many attempts at stirring of the Labor discontent pot before the election. I doubt the ‘honeymoon’ period will last too much longer.

  10. Well the Media and ugly Australia wanted a popularity contest and now they have it. Abbott is now under the microscope to actually put up or shut up as Rudd for better or worse is a way better communicator in the media. Its all very Hewson, Rudd will win this election and Abbott is not happy, running scared. Rudd will make it all about everything the media are avoiding about Abbott, Scrutiny. Abbott is a fake and nothing more than a divisive, repugnant man unworthy of the office who has taken political discourse in this country to its lowest ebb.

  11. The writer’s assumption is that people (in his view – Kevin Rudd in particular) do not learn from mistakes and will not change regardless. That means, if they are bad, they are forever bad! If they tell lies a few times, they will never tell the truth and everything comes out of their mouth are lies! Unfortunately, this is not how humans function (by and large). We grow and we change – maybe the writer is one of the exceptions! Julia Guillard was not given the full three years (only three years) to make her case and finish her job – it’s not right! This logic should apply to Kevin Rudd and any other national leaders (including Tony Abbott if he could win the election). If political parties could install and remove their leaders as frequently as they wish at any given time, that means that political party’s selection process of their leader is seriously wrong and flawed! If the ruling political party thinks that their leader is not performing, we should trust that Australians can see to it and we’ll dump him/her and his/her party in the next election and voters should also bear the consequences of choosing a dud party and their leader. Of course there should be exceptions when the party should remove their leader during his/her office in situations like the leader is committing treason or promoting antisemitism etc.
    Another point is that no leader in this human world is a superman or God (maybe except China’s Chairman Mao and the North Korean leaders). As voters, we must realise that they may not be able to deliver their vision and all their great promises during his/her term. It takes time, sometimes a long long long time especially in this highly complicated political scene and powerful lobbyists from the super rich. The most important thing is – that vision inspires the people!

  12. You may have been fooled once or twice but as a former long term Labor voter (until 2007) my BS antena realised at the time that the PM was all spin and no substance.

    While I take no heart of others making that mistake I do feel deep disappointment as the country has (and is) gone down hill so quickly. I still have grudging respect for the former PM (JG) because she got the machinery of government working and she was at least publically, honourable in her ways.

    For good or for evil I now vote Tory, and for the long term damage caused by the ALP and the current PM, and in spite of the good work by JG I will never go back.

  13. Rudd is exactly the same as Stalin. All Rudd’s policy fiascoes Carbon tax, including deaths caused by Rudds pink bat and boat people policies simply no longer exist.

    Carbon Tax ‘terminated’.

    See they are no longer in the photo. What policy fiasco did you say?

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