Monday, 26 September 2011

The experts have got it wrong: Gillard was not disloyal to Rudd

Bill Leak
Illustration: Bill Leak Source: The Australian

There are, the experts claim, many reasons to vote against Julia Gillard at the next election. Topping the list is the allegation that she conspired against Kevin Rudd in the greatest act of disloyalty to a leader since caucus elected John Watson in 1901.

They allege voters were disgusted at the "assassination" of Rudd and, while recognising he made mistakes, he had done nothing to warrant his removal. Caucus had usurped the role of voters. How, the voters asked, could caucus replace the leader they had chosen without consulting them? It was unheard of, and it destroyed the credibility of the new Prime Minister. The theory has one flaw. It's bullshit. There have been numerous challenges for the Labor leadership since federation. None were made by voters.

I was seeking preselection for Robertson when Jim Cairns challenged Gough Whitlam in April 1968. Cairns failed but others followed. Bill Hayden challenged Whitlam, Bob Hawke challenged Hayden (twice), Paul Keating challenged Hawke (twice) and Kim Beazley and Mark Latham contested the leadership on December 2, 2003. Latham won by 47 votes to 45 - unfortunately.

In none of the ballots was the public consulted. Its turn came when the country went to the polls. Liberal MPs involved in challenges - William McMahon, John Howard, Andrew Peacock, Brendan Nelson, Alexander Downer, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott - didn't ask voters either.

Now to the question of disloyalty. Not one caucus member I have spoken to believes Gillard was disloyal. Rudd was sacked because he was loathed by most of caucus, which begs the question: how did he get elected in the first place? Simple. Labor had shown that with the right leadership it could hold office for long periods. Five successive election victories - 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993 - had proven that. However, the Howard era ushered in a series of defeats that caused Labor to change leaders repeatedly - Beazley, Simon Crean, Latham and Beazley again. They went close a few times but none quite captured the voter's imagination.

Rudd arrived in Canberra in 1998, aged 34, after a period in the diplomatic service and as an adviser and later chief of staff to Queensland premier Wayne Goss. He was no ordinary chief of staff. He had been described by journalist Roy Eccleston in The Australian (March 1992) as the "state's most influential man", after the premier. Eccleston continued: "Nothing of substance in government policy is likely to happen without his [Rudd's] knowledge, consideration and advice. [Rudd] quickly developed an almost mythological reputation for power and influence. Rudd's influence on the government? Total. Our impression was all policies were coming out under his imprimatur . . . His objective is to ensure reforms create an enduring transformation in Queensland."

I learned nothing got through the Queensland cabinet unless Rudd approved it, and he had on occasion reduced cabinet ministers to tears. Apparently no one had told him his job was to advise ministers, not vice-versa. Rudd was a Jekyll and Hyde personality who changed when required. He could flash the cheesy, Luna Park grin, be "hail fellow well met" when necessary and be particularly charming to important media heavies. Once he had achieved his objective he reverted to Hyde.

The sign of what was to come occurred when he broke with a century-old tradition and announced that not only would he allocate portfolios, but the ministry. Stunned as the caucus was, with the polls showing Rudd would defeat John Howard, they didn't rock the boat. It gave Rudd more power than any Labor leader in history. He used it ruthlessly.
Not long after his stunning election victory, the "exceptionally nasty" side of Rudd surfaced. ; Eventually he alienated most of caucus. There is nothing new in prime ministers having enemies but they also had supporters. Rudd had almost none. The apex of his stupidity occurred when six senior backbenchers went to see Rudd to "discuss" the decision of the special minister of state, John Faulkner, to slash their printing allowance in half. Faulkner was right to do so but when "the magnificent six" entered the prime ministerial office they were met with a torrent of abuse and expletives that would make a bullock driver blush. It was the beginning of the end of Rudd.

Bit by bit he estranged almost the entire caucus. They became fed up with his insufferable behaviour. In a column in July last year I recounted how shocked I was, when dining with three senior Labor MPs, to learn how much he was loathed. Another told me: "He was an out-of-control dictator. Everywhere he went there was death and destruction." Rudd committed political suicide.

Throughout all this Gillard remained his loyal deputy. Of the many MPs and senators I spoke to not one suggested she had any part in a conspiracy to dethrone Rudd. He had survived for one reason: polls showed he would romp home at the next election. All that changed after a series of mishaps including the pink batts fiasco, the mining tax and, after Copenhagen, his loss of interest in climate change. Overnight Labor's support collapsed and the reason for keeping Rudd disappeared. His replacement was obvious. The faction leaders went to his deputy and told her to run. When she refused, declaring loyalty to Rudd, she was told, "If you don't run we'll find someone who will."

The rest is history.

There may be a number of reasons to vote against Gillard, but a conspiracy involving her in the "assassination" of Rudd and the usurping of the role of caucus is not among them.

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