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Switching off

8 June 2010

BOOKS | What went wrong for Kevin Rudd? Judith Brett reviews David Marr’s Quarterly Essay


Above: At the centre of power? Kevin Rudd addresses the UN General Assembly in September last year.
UN Photo/ Marco Castro

Above: At the centre of power? Kevin Rudd addresses the UN General Assembly in September last year.
UN Photo/ Marco Castro

Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd

By David Marr
Quarterly Essay | $19.95

WHY, AFTER being elected with such high hopes, has Kevin Rudd’s star fallen so fast? We all know the events: the failure to negotiate the emissions trading scheme through the Senate and the decision to drop the policy until after the next election; the disastrously handled insulation scheme and the lesser disaster of Building the Education Revolution; the decision in an election year to take on one of Australia’s most powerful interests, mining, with a new tax. And then there’s the increasingly annoying manner, with the repeated tag lines, the priggish, robotic manner. It’s only my professional commitment to following Australian politics that stops me from leaving the room when he appears yet again in a hard hat and fluoro safety jacket, or sitting in his shirt sleeves beside a hospital bed chatting with studied informality. And if, as the polls indicate, most Australians have switched off too, then his capacity to regain lost ground is very weak. It is as if he is fading from view before our eyes, still talking, a less and less substantial figure, like the Cheshire cat but with pursed lips and a wagging finger.

The title of David Marr’s June Quarterly Essay, Power Trip, points to some answers. Rudd began his maiden speech in federal politics with the words “Politics is about power.” Well, yes and no. Power is complex. It comes in many forms, from coercive power, with its threats and bribes, to the authority to give orders and expect to be obeyed, to the power to persuade people to see a situation as you do and agree with your line of action. And in liberal democracies like Australia, the power of any one political officeholder, even the prime minister, is limited. Marr quotes a shrewd old bureaucrat who has worked with a few prime ministers and wonders if Rudd really understands the way power works at the top. “He isn’t afraid to pick a fight, but doesn’t then behave like a prime minister: he involves himself so much; puts himself on the line so quickly; doesn’t exercise authority by keeping at a distance.”

This is Rudd of “the buck stops with me,” who presents himself as the fixer of last resort of all the nation’s problems. This is the Rudd who rushed in to take the blame for all the problems of the insulation scheme, and whisked his notebook out of his top pocket to note down the names of worried insulators, reassuring them that there would be another phase of government largesse once the problems were sorted out. Why did he think he had to take all the blame? There were a few other candidates – like shonky small business operators. And no one really expects the PM to act as everyone’s local member, sorting out each person’s problems with this or that government scheme. But having promised something he then found he couldn’t deliver, and he only has himself to blame when he walks away and people are angry. There is a failure of judgement here as he promises too much and delivers too little, both in small things like the promise to the insulators and in large policy reversals like the emissions scheme. I am sure we will see a similar pattern in his attempt to fix the blame game in the nation’s hospital system.

Implicit in these failures of judgement is a fantasy of concentration of power in the office of the PM. Bucks stop – or not – in many places in liberal parliamentary democracies like ours: in particular with individual ministers, with state premiers and, behind the scenes, with senior public servants. Marr shows convincingly that Rudd is driven by a genuine and deeply held commitment to making Australia a decent place for children to grow up in, a commitment forged in the hard years after his father died. Because his father was a tenant farmer, the family lost its home after he died, and he endured two terrible years as a boarder in a Marist College that instilled in him an icy hatred of the school. Rudd’s determination to make Australia a place in which kids didn’t have to suffer like he had was accompanied by a determination to re-make himself from a fussy little kid on the margins of other people’s lives into someone who was both unassailable and at the centre of things – which is where, he thinks, he now is.

But the problem is that, having got there, his hold on power is slipping faster than anyone could have imagined. He has become, Marr argues, the choke point in the government, just as he was in Goss’s government when he ran the cabinet office. Rudd’s micromanagement and need to be on top of every detail also has to do with owning all the outcomes of government; he treats senior public servants as underlings, patronises caucus, ignores advice and bypasses his ministers, hogging all the big announcements for himself. And, in the judgement of a former staffer, “For all the effort he doesn’t come up with particularly interesting solutions to problems. His policy positions aren’t breakthrough, not particularly new or exciting. After all that work they are dull.”

Because he thinks power is all about him, he seems unable to give others the space to be creative, which means that he can’t draw on the wisdom of those who are perhaps less clever than he is but have richer life experiences and more understanding of what makes others tick. And he seems to think that all he has to do is to make announcements. Power is also exercised through persuasion, and here he seems to have a major blind spot. As we know, he is very sensitive to voters’ opinions, but seems little interested in that of stakeholders. It is mind-boggling that his government decided to introduce a new mining tax without any prior consultation with the industry. Ambushing Australia’s most powerful industry in an election year is about as smart as Ben Chifley’s taking on the banks. Doesn’t he remember that the Australian Mining Industry Council’s advertising campaign killed the Hawke government’s commitment to national land rights legislation in the 1980s?

The battle with the miners has erupted since Marr finished his essay, but it is in character with the man Marr presents, a man for whom power is a brittle exercise in control and who has little understanding of the limits of what one person can do, even when he holds the highest office in the land. Perhaps Rudd will read Marr’s essay and learn from it. He does have deep intellectual and emotional reserves. And with an unelectable opposition, we would all be grateful if he showed signs of a maturing political judgement. But the concluding scene does not bode well for such an outcome.

Marr and Rudd have been chatting and Rudd asks him about the likely argument of the essay. Marr tells him that he is pursing the contradictions of his life, and wonders aloud if his government will go the way of Goss’s. Rudd explodes with controlled fury. It is, says Marr, the most vivid version of Rudd he has yet encountered. “Who is the real Kevin Rudd?” he writes. “He is the man you see when the anger vents. He’s a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage.” Marr’s essay is brilliant: it has all of the sharp observation and unexpected angles, and the lucid, supple prose, that make him such a fine interpreter of Australian political life. •

Show Comments


tony kevin

11 June 2010

Yes to both of the above. Rudd is irritating in some ways but he is still redeemable. He is a decent man and he leads his party well -after all, he led them to victory in 2007 - and it is a party whose values are streets ahead of John Howard's party, a party which has not changed in its attitudes, as anyone listening lately to Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison or Phillip Ruddock could confirm.

David Marr's piece was harsh but bracing, like a cold shower.

Rudd has not lost the respect of the electorate, at least not yet. The orange lights are flashing for him - he has to get real, soon, on climate change mitigation policy - an issue that is not open to political argy-bargy and bribery. If he does, he will win and will deserve to win the next election.

The alternative is too awful to contemplate - I don't think Australian voters are collectively stupid, and we can see Abbott lacks weight and wisdom. But if Rudd goes on messing ineffectually and insincerely with climate change gesture politics - if he does not now heed Garnaut's considered recent recommendation for an early [it should be light at the beginning] carbon tax, to set the nation on the road to decarbonisation - he may lose it.

Sylvia Lawson

20 June 2010

Jane Goodall is right. Whatever the eventual profit may be in an analysis of Kevin Rudd’s personality, now is not the time for it. I can believe that when Quarterly Essay commissioned David Marr for his essay – a few months ago? – the landscape may have looked very different; but now we’re living through a dangerous political moment. For David Marr the biographer, the fascination with the long-term effects of childhood worked brilliantly in his full-length portrait of Patrick White; and the story of Kevin Rudd’s early years, the Dickensian chapter with the Marist Brothers, may indeed have explanatory value for some eventual portrait. But dissecting the prime minister now, in terms of childhood events, alleged obsessive working practices and misguided U-turns, doesn’t help us save the country from the threat of another reactionary government. Any liberal, or left-liberal writer’s over-riding present projects should work, openly or otherwise, on the side of social democracy. As for the dinnertime anecdote on the prime minister’s anger when Marr outlined his prospective thesis: anyone might be furious at being thus sentimentalised. Notions of “anger at his core” and “the real Kevin Rudd” (as though there were, or could be only one) amount to opening a door and inviting Tony Abbott in.

jane goodall

17 June 2010

Don't worry, Judith and David, he's probably on his way out. Is that what you want?

You know, I'm flummoxed here. After - how long was it? - living under (and I say 'under' advisedly) a government whose every move was about staying in power and increasing the degree of government control, and whose Prime Minister foisted himself and his flat voice across the lead features in almost every news broadcast of the ABC and SBS for years, I breathed a massive sigh of relief to see a true professional in the job. And that's how I still see him. Frankly I'm not interested in a personality analysis of Kevin Rudd. I'm concerned with his policies and his performance in the job. Sure he's shown some tendencies to be arbitrary, overbearing, workaholic. Whatever. I still support the policies I voted for, and as far as I'm concerned, he's still representing them, with the compromises that the budget of public opinion enforces. There is an almost universally biased media, trained for years to be uncritical of John Howard and to regard his policies as some kind of benchmark of political normality.

Those who fancy themselves as political hardheads should take a hard headed look at the asymmetry in political commentary. The right (for want of a better label) are staunchly uncritical of leaders on their own side of politics. The left still think it is really smart to reserve most of their vitriol for their 'own' side.

At the heart of this is a critical issue for serious political analysts: we need to be stringently critical of all governments. Marr and Brett, two of the sharpest public intellectuals in the business, might reasonably say this is what they are doing. Actually, I'm not convinced. It looks to me more like an old dramaturgy in urgent need of an overhaul. The government that is aspirational, promising social and ethical change, necessarily courts 'disappointment' and the commentariat, supposedly devoted to the same aspirational goals, serves it up in spades. As citizens of a democracy, we are all responsible for effecting principled social and cultural change. Those who project their frustrations and disappointments onto any political leader who attempts to deliver it are engaged in a self-defeating enterprise.


9 June 2010

Actually, Marr's representaion of Rudd is nonsense. It was nasty character assassination. I've lived in Kevin Rudd's electorate for longer than he's been a member, and spoken to him many time. Marr shows his lack of accurate sources when he says the Rudd was known for inefficiency when he was Goss's adviser, which is nonsense. Rudd was notorious for being incredibly efficient, too efficent even.

Marr also adds in some lovely character assasination of Senator George Georges, in case Rudd wasn't enough. He calls George an 'old fossil', which is remarkable, considering that 'old fossil' was one of the biggest fighters for civil liberties under Joh, and was the only federal politician to take Bob Hawke to task over his attacks on the unions.

Marr argued a reductive and melodramatic hypothesis (driven by rage, indeed), and it might be believable only if you had no knowledge of Kevin Rudd's personality, and were eager to believe that because someone is from Queensland, they're a redneck.

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