Mr Rudd remains a mystery to us all
Posted 1 hour 36 minutes ago
What will happen after the election if, as expected, Labor loses? It depends on what Kevin does, Labor people will tell you. And no-one knows how that’s going to go, writes Annabel Crabb.
Tomorrow brings to a head a most memorable three-way fistfight: Kevin Rudd versus the Labor Party versus the Australian people.
Was there ever a struggle so strange?
Ordinarily, leaders use their parties as loudhailers through which they talk to the electorate.
Kevin Rudd, with his knack for structural complexity, has pioneered a much more ornate model; the leader who hopes and trusts that voters will love him despite his party, with which he is terminally at odds.
There is little doubt that the Labor Party, as an organisation, has done its best to expel Kevin Michael Rudd, still just 55 years old, still from Queensland and still – apparently endlessly – here to help.
It has in turn tolerated him, marvelled at him, adored him, exploited him, resented him, turned on him in unspeakable brutality, humiliated him, feared him, gone back to him cap in hand, and even now – on the eve of what may be quite a memorable defeat – it still has no idea of what he is going to do.
What will happen after the election, if – as is widely supposed – Labor loses? It depends on what Kevin does, Labor people will tell you. And no-one knows how that’s going to go.
When Rudd’s popularity first soared, they indulged him. When it flagged, they turned on him. When it rekindled, they swallowed their pride.
The presence of a genuinely indomitable will in a group of otherwise intelligent adults can produce confounding degrees of passivity. That passivity was there when the parliamentary Labor Party elected Kevin Rudd to be their leader – after years of privately mocking him – because they figured he wouldn’t go away.
It was there when, during Rudd’s first term as prime minister, his blinding popularity ratings conscripted the majority of them to a vast conspiracy of silence as to his various dysfunctions. Then came the great insurrection of June 2010 – a classic crime of passion, in which the downtrodden collectively overcame their helplessness and rose up in a blind act of defiance, again with no idea how he would react.
But it didn’t take all that long, really, for fretful dependence to re-establish itself, and for some in the party to wonder if they wouldn’t be better off getting back together after all.
Kevin Rudd’s power within the Caucus has always been a direct function of his popularity outside it.
When it first soared, they indulged him. When it flagged, they turned on him. When it rekindled, they swallowed their pride.
And while no-one can ever properly understand what makes a person stick around in politics, particularly once they’ve been stomped on and sacked live on CNN, it seems fairly evident that Mr Rudd’s unwavering trust in his relationship with the Australian people – his conviction that they love and continue to want him – bore him through those difficult times.
In the electorate of Griffith, the giant billboards read, simply, “Kevin”, or “It’s Our Ruddy Future”. Like the group morning walks, in which a group of T-Shirted young volunteers forms an ambulant doughnut of adoration around the Prime Minister, or the school visits during which he bathes in a restorative solution of teen hysteria, their message is clear: Here is a leader who thrives on love, and who for years has kept fighting on the conviction it’s still out there.
Of all the questions raised by Australian politics of late, this is the one to which tomorrow will provide an answer: Was he wrong, all this time?
All this seems horribly harsh, I know.
And for all Mr Rudd’s serial difficulties with the people who have been his closest workmates, there is no denying his extraordinary ability – developed, like most of his skills, thanks to a combination of natural aptitude and relentless application – to build a bond of trust and affection with people he has never met.
To them, he is never short-tempered or unreasonable; to them, his greatest and most human qualities are uninterruptedly apparent.
Poking around last night, I found something I wrote about Mr Rudd in 2009 after the Black Saturday bushfires, whose victims experienced the Prime Minister’s considerable capacity for kindness to strangers:
With colleagues and staff, he can be icy and forbidding; he is merciless in his demands on their time and energies, and those who disappoint learn to dread the long, cold stare which is his most chilling expression of reproach.
There is a mercilessness about his conduct in politics which has always ensured his essential isolation there. And yet the plight of a stranger can move him to extraordinary feats of kindness and attention.
The Herald reported last year that Rudd – as shadow foreign affairs spokesman – was so moved by the wretched story of condemned drug trafficker Van Nguyen in 2005 that he sent his own father’s precious Bible for the boy to pray with in his last hours. He is especially touched by homelessness, by dispossession, by children who lose parents and by parents who lose children.
Coalition MPs, who think Rudd a cold fish, have been surprised by the sincerity of his concern; he has kept in touch by phone with anyone who has stricken constituents. Humility is not a big part of the Rudd political profile, but he was humble in the face of a stinging public letter from the journalist and bushfire victim Gary Hughes, who denounced the Government for enforcing inflexible Centrelink processes.
Where does this story end? Would it end, for instance, with a decisive result in the House of Representatives tomorrow night? How many seats would need to fall for Kevin Rudd to relinquish the belief that his own vocation for leadership of the Australian people was thwarted only by the inconstancy of his own party colleagues?
Even if the loss is very heavy, I am yet to talk to any Labor person who is absolutely certain that such a result would cause Kevin Rudd to retire from politics. After all these years, that’s how well they know him: Not at all.
Annabel Crabb is the ABC’s chief online political writer. View her full profile here.
More election coverage on The Drum:
- Michael Rowland: Rudd’s battle at the new Brisbane Line
- Stephen Long : Is that all there is? Please, Joe, say it ain’t so!
- Barrie Cassidy: Abbott reveals his plan for a more selfish Australia
- David Llewellyn-Smith: Coalition costings on same perilous path as Labor