Inside Story

Bringing order to chaos

What do Labor memoirs reveal about the 2010 leadership change?

Joshua Black 23 June 2020 2483 words

Restoring government: Julia Gillard (centre) chairs her first cabinet meeting as prime minister on 25 June 2010. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

With the tenth anniversary of Labor’s leadership transition from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard looming, commentators have been striving to identify the key lessons of that moment of high drama in Australia’s political history. For some, it was the moment that Australian politics “lost its head.” For others, it was the first sign of a “sickness in Australia’s political class,” a sickness that would lead to a decade of lost opportunities and a mountain of political cadavers. Others still have recognised it as a threshold moment for women in power in Australia.

Of course, none of these interpretations was self-evident to those who sought to make sense of the event at the time. As senior journalist Phillip Coorey wrote on the morning of the challenge, “Only six months ago… Mr Rudd and his government appeared unassailable.” Since then, the popular and scholarly analyses of the night of 23 June 2010 have had one thing in common: they have attempted to draw historical meaning and political precepts from an event that bewildered much of the electorate.

In the years following Gillard’s ascension, Labor MPs argued vigorously for their preferred interpretations of Rudd’s downfall. The first wave of history-making took place in February 2012, when Kevin Rudd made his initial attempt to return to the leadership. Gillard loyalists used the media to expose the dysfunctionality of his government as they saw it. Gillard ultimately won that battle over Labor’s recent history and immediate future by a margin of 71–31.

Labor’s partisans clashed again in 2015 in ABC TV’s three-part documentary, The Killing Season. Rudd talked of a “coup”; Gillard referred simply to “the leadership change.” Presenter Sarah Ferguson suggested that the goal of the series was to put the leaders “side by side and let the audience decide,” but senior ministers such as Wayne Swan and Craig Emerson have told me they felt its account was decidedly pro-Rudd.

Finally, the debate was taken up in the published memoirs of key players and observers. Both Rudd and Gillard explained the challenge as they saw it, within broader accounts of their careers, as did their senior colleagues Wayne Swan, Greg Combet, Peter Garrett and Craig Emerson. High-profile backbench MP Maxine McKew joined in, as did Australian Workers’ Union leader and reputed “faceless man” Paul Howes, and one-time Rudd speechwriter James Button. Despite the inevitable flaws in these subjective accounts, they cumulatively reveal much about the structural challenges that led to it.

The close personal friendships and political alliances among members of each camp shape the picture of history that emerges from these memoirs. It’s also important to remember that political memoirists don’t craft their narratives on their own: as the former chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing, Louise Adler, once wrote, modern political memoirs are constructed with the help of “the unacknowledged ghostwriter, the credited co-author, advisers, researchers, fact checkers and a legion of loyal staff.” To this throng I would add the “friend,” the “parliamentary colleague,” the “internal supporter” and others.

Members of the Gillard camp, in particular, have acknowledged these wider groups. Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard both thanked one another directly in their acknowledgements. In his memoir, The Good Fight, Swan also paid tribute to Stephen Smith and Stephen Conroy, fellow “roosters” in the party’s national Right faction. Gillard thanked Craig Emerson, cabinet minister and key supporter, for offering “valuable feedback on sections” of her book, My Story. Emerson in turn thanked Greg Combet, another Gillard minister and loyalist, for “encouragement” and Gillard herself for “wise counsel” during the drafting process of his book, The Boy from Baradine.

When asked about these literary interactions, the memoirists have revealed that they spoke with one another, swapped drafts and corroborated memories. Combet, author with Mark Davis of Fights of My Life, confirmed to me that he and Gillard “did liaise over some of the elements.” Gillard recalled that her deputy, Wayne Swan, “shared his manuscript” with her during his own writing process. When I asked him if his account was partly intended to support Gillard’s legacy, Craig Emerson responded, “Definitely, and I discussed it with Bob Hawke, not in fine detail, but having had that discussion he said, ‘History will judge Julia Gillard well.’”

When Rudd published his own two-volume memoir, the contest of peers gave way to a contest of pages. Recognising the “minor phalanx” of memoirs arrayed against him, he produced an account of the challenge, in The PM Years, that spanned six chapters and ninety-four pages.

In different ways, then, the friendships forged during these political battles shaped the form and content of the memoirs produced by those who sided with Gillard. They told a version of history in which a good government was in terminal decline prior to June 2010, largely because the prime minister was almost totally dysfunctional. Cabinet ministers in particular recorded dozens of examples of Rudd’s poor interpersonal skills, his inability to make decisions and the centralisation of power away from cabinet and towards the prime minister’s office.

Peter Garrett (in Big Blue Sky) and Wayne Swan both accused Rudd of “micromanagement.” Combet explained that Rudd “took all responsibility upon himself,” which “made decision-making slow.” Gillard referred to Rudd’s tendency to “kick the can down the road” by “announcing an inquiry” rather than making a final policy decision. Even those on the edge of the process, like speechwriter James Button writing in his book Speechless, found that Rudd’s “fretful need to obtain more data… was constantly holding up the workings of government.”

In Swan’s account, Rudd’s style became increasingly corrosive over time, and “infected the way officials and staff interacted with him, his office and the cabinet.” Garrett bluntly described Rudd as a “brute” in his handling of both the bureaucracy and his colleagues.

Even those who ultimately supported Rudd recognised his weaknesses. Discussing Rudd’s return, in his book Diary of a Foreign Minister, foreign minister Bob Carr recorded in his diary, “plans are not Kevin’s strong suit.” What is astonishing is not that insiders are critical of Rudd’s governing style but that those criticisms are repeated regardless of factional or personal loyalties.

These memoirs also present a consistent picture of deteriorating cabinet processes. Swan claimed that Rudd was “an extremely poor chair of cabinet meetings,” while Combet recorded that “[m]any ministers felt excluded from discussion of the policy and political implications of decisions.” In the throes of the global financial crisis, the government was led by its four most senior ministers (Rudd, Gillard, Swan and finance minister Lindsay Tanner) in the Strategic Priorities Budget Committee; by 2010 that, too, had broken down. Its “agendas became unwieldy, the meeting schedules erratic,” wrote Gillard.

For Craig Emerson, one of the virtues of the Gillard government was that “the cabinet processes worked, in stark contrast to the shambolic Rudd processes.” Against these charges, Rudd mounted the relatively weak reply that his cabinet process was “as systematic as it could be.”

These flawed processes ultimately led to failed policies. In late 2009, with the number of asylum seeker boat arrivals growing rapidly, Rudd made the crucial decision to send an Australian customs vessel, the MV Oceanic Viking, to assist a distressed boat of Sri Lankan refugees, without having consulted immigration minister Chris Evans. When the vessel arrived at an Indonesian processing centre, the refugees refused to disembark. As Swan wrote, “Not only was [the failure to consult Evans] very poor protocol in a system of democratic cabinet government, it was politically disastrous.”

At the same time, Rudd was seen to be mishandling the government’s contentious carbon pollution reduction scheme. According to Gillard, climate minister Penny Wong “did not know whether her political instructions from Kevin were to get a deal or to crash the prospects of a deal… Kevin was obviously equivocating on, indeed hiding from, such a profound decision.” Ministers were shocked when Rudd dumped the scheme; Garrett wasn’t alone in saying that the decision to defer this crucial plank of climate policy “wasn’t communicated to cabinet before being made public.”

Again, as the Rudd government began to develop its proposed resource super profits tax on minerals wealth in May 2010, key ministers were left unconsulted. Gillard claimed that Rudd sidelined them “to prevent leaks,” while Swan recorded that Rudd “distrusted [resources minister Martin] Ferguson because he was close to the industry.” Policy failures and political headaches were the inevitable product of the Rudd government’s warped cabinet processes.

That’s the policy substance, but what of the sales pitch? In most of these memoirs, the Rudd government engages in a form of media manipulation that, by June 2010, had failed. In James Button’s assessment, “the audience did not matter to him, only the media.” From the backbench, Maxine McKew saw a prime minister who was obsessed with presentation. “Rudd was a puzzle…” she wrote in Tales from the Political Trenches. “[H]e could be persuasive and sophisticated, but on other occasions, he seemed to struggle with deciding which Kevin the public should see.”

The government’s quest to manipulate the media cycle, by McKew’s account, was relentless, culminating in a “command and control” system of political messaging. For union leader Paul Howes, writing in Confessions of a Faceless Man, the decision to abandon the carbon-reduction scheme revealed Rudd as a cynical media performer, “all spin and no substance.”

In the absence of a clear policy vision and sound administrative processes, Rudd would be fatally exposed when his supremacy in the public opinion polling began to wane. In accounts from the Rudd and Gillard camps, polling proved central to the question of whether the events of June 2010 were justified.

In the first of the “insider” accounts of the event, McKew argued that public polls and commissioned internal polls were the “principal tool in the enterprise” of Rudd’s removal. In The PM Years Rudd pointed to the last Newspoll taken before his ousting to show that he was still running a good government that had “recovered a solid lead” over the Coalition, and that “the Australian public did not share the views of the plotters on the allegedly terminal state of the government I led.”

Gillard’s camp referred to party polling that pointed, according to Howes, “not just to defeat, but to electoral annihilation.” For Gillard, “as the polling tightened,” a sense of panic developed in the Labor caucus. Rudd is, of course, right to say that the public polling was not bad enough to validate the move against him, but it is significant that in his narrative the polling appears to be his last line of defence, and one that became shaky when the public and party findings contradicted each other.

Did Labor insiders see the change of leadership coming? In their accounts, several prominent members of the Rudd ministry confessed surprise at the series of events in which they were swept up. Combet admitted he had “no inkling of the move against [Rudd].” Craig Emerson, aware of the disaffection with Rudd in caucus, claimed that until the night of 23 June 2010 he “didn’t place a lot of weight” on the media reports that warned of a leadership change. Peter Garrett, who was overseas at a conference about whaling, recorded that he had left Canberra “with one prime minister in charge and flew back in to find another.”

If others perceived Rudd to have been jittery about his support in mid June, Rudd’s own memoir offered a picture of total surprise when Gillard moved against him. Referring to the article that triggered the event — a story in the Sydney Morning Herald by journalist Peter Hartcher claiming that Rudd now distrusted his deputy leader — he wrote, “It suggested a leadership crisis when, to the best of my knowledge, there was none.” For the majority of those involved, the events were fast-paced and unexpected.

At the core of their accounts, Rudd, Gillard and Swan confront the essential meaning of the event. For Rudd, the only explanation of 23 June 2010 was ambition and opportunism: “the coup was primarily about personal ambition, power and, in some cases, revenge,” he wrote in The PM Years. In his version of history, the leadership change had little to do with either the administrative processes or the policy outcomes of his government, and was sealed by a broken promise for more time.

For Swan, on the other hand, the events were an attempt to save Labor from the dysfunction of its leader: “Kevin had brought these events upon himself and we now had no choice but to make the best of the situation.” For Gillard, who considered her partnership with Rudd to have been the backbone of the Labor government, the Hartcher story sounded the death knell of the “only remaining bond holding the government together.” The differences between the Rudd and Gillard–Swan narratives are wide, with little or no agreement about issues of policy, process or, especially, polling.

A decade after the event, what lessons can be drawn from these insider accounts? First, cabinet remains the central institution in Commonwealth administration. To misuse or abuse that institution in the 2010s was to create a large vulnerability for one’s leadership. The removal of Tony Abbott in September 2015 was equally premised on the need to “restore” cabinet government.

Second, bad process breeds bad policy. The Rudd government’s missteps on asylum seekers, the carbon pollution reduction scheme and the resource super profits tax were all products of poor consultation, a tendency to stifle policy debate, and a chronic fear of leaks.

Third, though it never pays to be naive in politics, spin is rarely a sound substitute for substance. Rudd’s quest to control the media cycle was central to the story of the dysfunctionality of his leadership.

Finally, the political class’s obsession with opinion polling — an obsession confirmed and reiterated in most of these accounts — was a key part of the structural weakness of Australian politics in the 2010s. Having alienated much of his parliamentary party and failed to enlist the support of key groups in the community, Rudd had to live or die by the polls, which left him critically exposed in June 2010.

Both Labor and the Liberals have since altered the rules for selecting their leaders in the hope of slowing the churn of the past decade. But the events that led to June 2010 could still be repeated. A leader who sidelined cabinet and governed by spin might not be replaced by the party room, but a political crisis could still unfold swiftly.

If history is never to be repeated, policymakers and bureaucrats must read and learn from those who have lived it, made it, and published it for posterity. Amid the self-serving arguments and coordinated narratives propagated in this group of political memoirs, there are key lessons about how not to run a government. •