Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 28 June 2013
There has been no shortage of excitement in Australian politics in recent years. Treachery, back-stabbing, scandals and defections are among the staples of Australian democracy (which one might now instinctively misspell as demo-crazy).
Yet Kevin Rudd’s resurrection as Labor leader and Prime Minister tops all the oddities we have become used to. Even by Australian standards, this is an extraordinary development.
If you have not followed Australian politics closely, you might think Julia Gillard being toppled by her predecessor was just the removal of an unpopular prime minister by a party scared of losing the next election in a landslide.
In fact, it is far worse than that.
Although three years is a long time in politics, it is worth reminding ourselves why Rudd was ousted by his own colleagues in 2010 – and why his return was then blocked not once but twice by his party. Unlike the majority of the Australian people, his colleagues knew all too well what kind of person Rudd was.
To the public, Rudd appears to be a slightly geeky but affable guy. The inside view on him has always differed from this carefully crafted image.
Rudd was someone who would regularly throw tantrums at colleagues, defence personnel, and media editors. He was unable to work with his cabinet. He was obsessed with opinion polls and made up and micromanaged policies based on them.
The best anecdote summing up his character was when Rudd summoned the chief of the defence force only to keep him waiting for several hours outside his office, before sending him away.
In the words of Bendigo Labor MP Steve Gibbons, Rudd is “a psychopath with a giant ego”.
In contrast, Gillard is certainly not the best prime minister Australia has had, and she made plenty of mistakes in office. But anyone who has had any personal dealings with her describes her as intelligent, funny and personable.
Gillard’s first tragedy was that she never explained properly why she and her colleagues ousted Rudd in 2010. It was not just because of policies or polls but largely for Rudd’s character deficiencies.
Her second tragedy was that she needed Rudd’s vote in parliament to stay in office. She even had to make him foreign minister to keep him quiet for a while.
Rudd never returned these favours and kept destabilising the party and undermining Gillard’s leadership every step of the way. He wanted revenge – and now he has got it.
He has sabotaged Gillard’s government to the point where his party, despite the personal hatred towards him, now believes he is the only chance of avoiding a massacre at the polls.
Rudd’s second premiership may turn out to be short-lived because Australian Labor, divided and exhausted, lies in tatters. Only someone like Rudd could not care about that. After all, he never cared for anyone or anything other than himself.
The kindergarten of Australian politics has finally turned into a farce. It is the Australian people who will have their say on it in the forthcoming elections.