Inside Story

Personality as destiny

The Killing Season highlights the impact of politics on real people‚ and that has its costs for at least one of the participants

Jane Goodall Television 18 June 2015 2530 words

Confusion of registers: Kevin Rudd in the studio for The Killing Season.

As an elegiac piano-and-cello duet plays us into The Killing Season, the ABC’s account of Labor’s Rudd–Gillard years, a crow is silhouetted on a bare, wintry branch against a foreboding sky. Resonances of Edgar Allan Poe and Hitchcock set the mood: a blend of melancholy fatalism and psychological ferocity. Then comes a still image of two figures seated on a bench at the far end of a corridor, backlit by a massive window.

There is something fateful about corridors and those who walk down them, and the title sequence continues with a succession of such images, releasing the figures from stillness into motion. Colour leaks in as the camera gets closer to the faces. Rudd. Gillard. A shot of her giving him a kiss on the cheek; a Judas kiss. Gillard’s red hair flares as flames explode on the right of the screen. Kevin Rudd’s eyes appear in extreme close-up, as if we are about to find out exactly what lies behind them.

Episode 2 of the ABC’s three-part series opens with Rudd being prepared for the cameras. He adjusts his position and closes his eyes for a second as if composing himself, but it’s a hard, set expression that faces the interviewer. Clearly he’s beyond any attempt at charm.

“Are you enjoying the experience of doing these interviews?” asks Sarah Ferguson.

“Not particularly,” is the clipped response.

He doesn’t need to say it and she doesn’t need to ask. Every muscle in his face signals acute discomfort. But she presses the question: “Why not?”

Ferguson is fast gaining a reputation as Australia’s most effective political interviewer, and one of her tactics is to force every issue into the realms of the explicit. As drama, its effectiveness is unquestionable: the result is utterly compelling. But in this case a boundary is being crossed. It’s not just that Rudd’s discomfort communicates. He’s not exactly squirming before the cameras – he’s too solid a presence, in every sense – but he is visibly suffering, and doing so with a kind of stoic honesty. “I’m a human being,” he says, and reminds her it’s something they have in common.

Suddenly we have gone from the poetic symbolism of the opening titles to a confronting level of naturalism. The mythic register has become confused with that of contemporary political reality. This is too recent a past to be mythologised – it is not even history yet, and in prematurely treating it as such, critical distance is being manufactured. However intrusively the camera probes Kevin Rudd’s eyes for the truths hidden from public knowledge, we can’t see through his skull, and that kind of intrusiveness raises questions about what it is our business to see. Even a former prime minister has some right to psychological privacy.

The confusion of registers may be an issue in this brilliant series but it highlights a more general phenomenon in the way political events are portrayed in the media. Politicians are portrayed as cartoon caricatures engaged in extreme forms of behaviour, or characters in a melodrama working their way through a storyline. As the storylines are usually deficient in credibility and substance, political reporters need a regular supply of crises to spike their trade.

There’s much to praise about The Killing Season. Executive producer Sue Spencer (also responsible for Labor in Power and The Howard Years) knows exactly how to pitch these documentaries, luring the viewer in with a promise of melodrama, deepening the lines of concentration by picking out the critical details, and then steering into turning points with unfaltering precision. She’s well teamed with Sarah Ferguson, whose streamlined presence never distracts from her subject. Although Ferguson displayed the killer instinct as a political interrogator during her recent term on 7.30, here she plays a very quiet game. The voice is low and even in tone, and the script is spare, but the quicksilver intelligence leaves no nuance unregistered.

Episode 1 begins in the winter of 2006, in a cab driving towards Parliament House with the radio news announcing a challenge to Beazley. It’s the last sitting week of parliament, known by insiders as “the killing week” because it is the prime opportunity for leadership challenges – those contests that journalists can describe only using the language of violent assassination. Leaders are wounded, or fatally stabbed. There’s blood everywhere – on the floor, on the knives, on the hands of the conspirators. Rudd becomes Julius Caesar; Gillard is Lady Macbeth.

If we are turning the lens of psychoanalysis onto those involved in this mix-and-match tragedy, perhaps we should also apply it to ourselves. Why do we so readily respond to metaphors of bloodshed? One answer is that we all know the killing isn’t real. Our leading politicians are our leading actors, and when they’ve played out their roles they are no more dead than the actors in Game of Thrones.

“It’s a very, very sobering and lonely walk down the corridor,” Rudd says, reflecting on his final approach to Beazley’s office. “You almost wish it could be a little longer than it is… Kim had this marvellous PA sitting at the desk. She had tears streaming down her face, because she’d been in politics a long time, and she knew what this meant.”

His way of recalling the scene doesn’t fit with the profile of someone repeatedly accused of a lack of empathy and a pathological disregard for the feelings of others. Gillard, by contrast, offers clichéd generalities about her own experience of the fatal walk. “It’s a big emotional thing to do…” she tells Ferguson, “there’s nothing pleasant about it, there’s nothing fun about it, it’s quite a horrible, gut-wrenching process.”

The Killing Season brings us close to the real human consequences of some of the things that go on in the house on the hill when it morphs into the nightmare world of Wolf Hall. One of the insights it offers is that politicians can have very strong human relationships, with all the associated vulnerability. Greg Combet’s enduring loyalty to Beazley shapes his perspective on the whole cycle of feuding that followed under Rudd and Gillard. He is sceptical, detached, openly disgusted by the display of ambition on both sides. “I had the shits big time,” is the crux of what he has to say.

Wayne Swan might have been expected to stand by Rudd in the same way. They’d known each other since school days, worked together on sweeping reforms in the Queensland government, and fronted the challenge of the global financial crisis as a team. Interviews with the two of them about their last phone call – they have not spoken since that day in 2010 – are intercut to devastating effect. Swan looks barely in control as he recalls it. “I told him I viewed his position as being untenable.” Et tu, Brute? Rudd’s comment now is about gut feeling. “Well – mate – you could have spoken to me.”

If references to bloodbaths and classical tragedy serve on one level to mask the human impact of all this, on another they are instructive. Tragedy taken as a classic dramatic form rather than as melodrama is profoundly structural. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” says Hamlet, “rough hew them how we will.” The divinity may not be so relevant here but the shaping certainly is. In a secular framework, personality is destiny. The protagonist is typically an over-reacher, and the fatal flaw is hubris: not knowing one’s limits means that the structure of the personality becomes misaligned with the shape of events. Struggles are experienced, actions are taken, and yet at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net. Was there something inevitable about the configuration of personalities and events leading to the killing seasons of 2010 and 2013?

In both the first and second episodes, Rudd is absolutely the centre of the drama. Gillard’s charges against him were all about personal failings; her actions can only be justified by the conviction that these failings were radical and irremediable. This is essentially the charge being examined in The Killing Season, and it underlies the psychological invasiveness of the series so far. David Marr’s Quarterly Essay Power Trip, which was published shortly before the challenge in June 2010, engaged in a sustained interpretation of Rudd as anger-driven, a man at the mercy of a deep-seated vindictiveness generated by childhood experiences. The essay hasn’t been mentioned in the series, but it set a precedent for some tendentious amateur psychology from which Gillard built her case for the prosecution.

Sarah Ferguson has said that she takes no side – she was “a feather in the wind” when it came to judging the two protagonists – but through a minute reconstruction of the sequence of events and interactions the first two episodes of The Killing Season present what amounts to a case for the defence. Much of the first episode is taken up with two of Rudd’s strongest achievements: the apology to the stolen generations, and his response to the global financial crisis.

Jenny Macklin, closely involved in arrangements for the apology, describes his meeting with Nanna Nungala Feyo, whose story Rudd told at the start of the apology speech. “He was incredibly respectful. He was very patient. He didn’t say very much. He let her talk.” Macklin and Tanya Plibersek are still deeply moved as they remember the occasion. “He mended broken hearts. No one can take that away from him.”

Former Treasury secretary Ken Henry, one of the most compelling interview subjects throughout, is the key witness on the handling of the global financial crisis. Rudd saw it coming in advance, says Henry, and wanted to start pre-emptive planning. “I thought he was jumping the gun… Two weeks later Bear Stearns collapsed… His instincts were better than mine.” Hank Paulson, the US treasury secretary at the time, corroborates: “It stood out. He understood not just the politics but the economics.” Former British prime minister Gordon Brown credits him as a co-instigator of the critical summit meeting from which the G20 was born.

So far so good, or apparently so, but with a stellar deputy managing the business back home while he was dealing with matters on the world stage, perhaps Rudd could have done without another major overseas crisis in his first term. And given his propensity for working twenty-four-hour shifts that left him and everyone around him exhausted to the point of dysfunction, maybe he needed to learn to pace himself.

The case for the prosecution began to gain traction in December 2009 when Rudd attended the UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen.

“I think Kevin dreamed big dreams for his role at Copenhagen,” Gillard says. “Now would you call that vanity, or would you call that focused on the task of getting a global climate agreement?”

When you bring in the eyewitnesses from the scene at Copenhagen, no such doubts are apparent. Andrew Charlton, who accompanied Rudd as his economic adviser, confirms that he outworked everyone. By the final, critical meeting with Gordon Brown in a small upstairs room, Obama had left, Wen Jiabao had left, and most of the remaining delegates were heavily asleep in their chairs. Brown acknowledges Rudd for his unique willingness to stand up to the naysayers and credits him with brokering the compromise declaration that saved the whole summit from complete failure.

If this were a classical tragedy, Rudd would be the warrior who returns home from the battle, bloody and exhausted after cutting his way single-handedly through thickets of enemy fighters. He may have defended the bridge, but he failed to bring home a victory. Now he’s “spent,” to use Gillard’s word, and he’s dogged by a tale of less than honourable conduct on the battlefield. Rudd famously used foul language to describe the Chinese delegation, and the remarks were leaked.

There’s especially fine work in this part of the episode from producer Deb Masters and her editors. From the point at which Rudd, along with other world leaders, is seen arriving in Copenhagen in a snowstorm to the point where he disembarks back home in the full-blown Australian summer, the structural ironies build relentlessly. It is clear that he is moving between two worlds that know nothing of each other. In his absence, Abbott has replaced Turnbull as opposition leader and the government’s carbon reduction scheme has been voted down with, of all ironies, the assistance of the Greens. There’s talk of a double dissolution, which Gillard and some of her advisers think would lead to a wipeout for Abbott.

Now it’s holiday time, but not for long. Gillard visits Rudd at Kirribilli House on 4 January with the prospect of a double dissolution in her sights and confirms her impressions that he is not “refreshed.” She is “seriously worried about his psychological state,” and concludes he’s in no condition to fight a campaign. Absolute bollocks, says Rudd when this is conveyed to him by Ferguson, who is looking increasingly like one of the dramatis personae, the shadowy figure who always has a word in the ear of someone who is riding dangerously on fortune’s big dipper.

The more experienced ministers – Macklin, Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson – are steadier in their judgement of Rudd. It’s telling that the ministers who are the first to lose confidence in him are the newer ones – Nicola Roxon, Tony Burke, Bill Shorten. Perhaps they are a bit too easily spooked by this idea that the leader is a cot case, and the idea is very catchy to those with a taste for crisis. In a rather clunky piece of action replay, we see Mark Arbib and Sam Dastyari consulting over some polling in key marginals and starting to press the panic buttons. Rudd’s approval rating is “in the toilet.” Asked about that now, Rudd comments that it is very easy for political operatives to say the sky has fallen in, and points out that both Arbib and Karl Bitar, another of the panic merchants, are currently working for a casino.

Yet somewhere around this moment, the point of no return was passed. In classical tragedy, the figures involved can never determine just when the outcome has become inevitable, but it often involves minor players messing about in matters whose larger significance is beyond their ken.

The consequences have taken some years to play out, and we still have Episode 3 to come. There’s no problem about spoilers – we all know what happened. Albanese was right when he predicted that an assault on Rudd would mean killing two prime ministers. Both, in their very different ways, had the potential to make a mark as among the most distinguished in Australia’s history, but neither got the chance to operate at full capacity. At the end of the day, it’s the Australian people who are the losers. That’s how it is in tragedy – everyone loses. But do they learn? •