THERE ARE THINGS in life that are certain: death, taxes, and internecine ALP leadership fighting; the so-called “tell all” interview might have been nothing of the sort, but Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd are finding other ways to renew their bickering and squabbling — only this time, in the harsh glare of public scrutiny. There is nothing new in any of this. But in putting their petty hatreds ahead of their party, any cost will be borne by the ALP.
After 12 long years in Opposition, Labor was desperate to win an election; yet the publicly jubilant leadership team of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard that was victorious the night of 24 November 2007 — vanquishing the second-longest serving and arguably best Prime Minister in Australia’s history — concealed a fundamental, and ultimately fatal, flaw.
Simply stated, one couldn’t win an election without the other. And remember, Gillard technically lost in 2010.
One was a psychotic megalomaniac; the other viewed as deeply untrustworthy. One wore a carefully constructed public face that masked a fractious and volatile character deeply despised by most of his MPs; the other was seen as more substantial, but “probably” unelectable on her own as the standard-bearer of Labor’s Left. One was a chaotic imbecile who managed to win over swinging voters; the other was the smiling face of socialism unilaterally detested by most voters beyond the reaches of the ALP’s core vote.
The contrast — whilst an irresistible experiment, to Labor strategists, predicated on each cancelling out the other’s faults — was stark. A more likely end destination for this particular journey was electoral catastrophe, and one way or another it seemed inevitable that the duo would find the most destructive means possible by which to arrive at it.
The day after the 2007 election I received a phone call from an old political crony in Brisbane; he wanted to know how long I thought it would take for the “fun and games” to start. I said I’d give it twelve months; my associate thought six more likely.
As we know, the Rudd government kept the wheels on for longer than either of us foresaw — probably with the perverse assistance of the global financial crisis — but the materialisation of a vicious and highly personal war over the ALP leadership came soon enough, and when it did, a scriptwriter could not have penned a more compelling storyline.
As we took a moment to remark upon on Tuesday — for a moment was all it deserved — the so-called “tell all” interview given by Julia Gillard to the Nine network’s Ray Martin was a nothing piece; a bit of vacuous claptrap with very little to justify what had been written all over the packet.
Her book, however — ostensibly the reason for the timing of the interview — is another matter altogether, and Gillard doesn’t hold back. I haven’t read the thing and probably won’t bother; as explosive as much of what she covers may be, there is little in it that is unknown. But as a red rag to the bullish and bellicose Rudd, it seems to have scored a direct hit.
Kevin Rudd was a deeply flawed individual because of a difficult childhood. He could never get enough “love” to replace that of his father. He was a menacing bully who was neither up to being Prime Minister, nor able to cope with the job once he had it. And of course, the accusations of treachery, duplicity and sabotage of her leadership, once she had enacted the coup against him, flow from Gillard in a torrent.
Rudd — not to be outdone by the individual who terminated his initial stint in the Prime Ministership and apparently hellbent on pursuing a grudge, despite voluminous public assurances to the contrary — has returned fire in recent days.
Julia Gillard was a plotter, a backstabber, and a treacherously Machiavellian character (or Lady Macbeth type) who presented as a coup d’etat the long-term planning, with “faceless men” including Bill Shorten, of his overthrow as Prime Minister in a move that “ripped the (Labor) Party apart.”
I could go on a bit about the specifics, who’s said what, who did what to whom, and all the tantalisingly juicy details of precisely how this crippled the ALP at the time. But there seems little point: none of what is being broadcast this week — again — is remotely surprising to anyone who turned on a TV set or read a newspaper during Labor’s ill-fated and incompetent stint in government.
None of this is new. All of the so-called revelations are “known knowns:” and as satisfying as it is on one level to see Labor’s only federal success story in 20 years tearing at its own throat with renewed fervour, the accusations and counter-accusations have ceased to even matter, let alone achieve anything.
Rudd was right: the leadership change ripped the party apart. But what he fails to mention is that his own leadership of the party commenced that process, as the irreconcilable and incompatible pairing of himself with Gillard as a “team” inevitably developed structural fatigue, then stress cracking, before finally being rent asunder by the consequences of his own shortcomings as Prime Minister and Labor leader.
That’s not to say Gillard is blameless — far from it; after all, it takes two to tango. But what happened — to each of them as Prime Minister, and to the ALP under their stewardship — was inevitable to all but the most pliant Labor supporters from the moment they were elevated to the fore.
The great risk in all of this renewed skirmishing lies in the unwanted distraction it lobs into the lap of present Labor “leader” Bill Shorten, and the attendant prospect for renewed hostilities on a wider basis that distract Labor from the job at hand and plunge it into a fresh round of internal recriminations.
It’s not as if Shorten hasn’t got enough to contend with as it is, notwithstanding the fact he’s probably the ALP’s single greatest electoral impediment.
But one of these former Prime Ministers is 57 years old; the other is 52. It is time for them to start to behave like it, and to leave the train wreck that was the government they shared — in unity and in the bitterest of division — smouldering in whatever field it landed when it jumped the tracks and destroyed the political careers of both of them.