Book Review by Neal Blewett: Rudd’s ruminations – The various selves of Kevin Rudd

Rudd’s ruminations: The various selves of Kevin Rudd

By Neal Blewett

It has already become a cliché: Kevin Rudd’s memoir, Not for the Faint-Hearted, is not for the faint-hearted. More than 600 densely packed pages long, it contains some 230,000 words and over 1,000 footnotes, but by the end of the volume Rudd is yet to be sworn in as the twenty-sixth prime minister of Australia. Yet the work was ‘intended to be a letter of encouragement’!

But why so long a letter? An obvious response is verbosity: over-written, too detailed, and with a narrative regularly interrupted by digressions. A generic explanation is that Rudd has opted for autobiography (‘a personal reflection on life, politics and purpose’) rather than the political memoir, with its focus on the political career and limited personal background or introspection. Further, Rudd is probably the most consummate presenter of self in recent Australian politics: ‘My name’s Kevin, I’m from Queensland, and I’m here to help.’ He used the popularity derived from this presentation to out-manoeuvre the factional chieftains to become prime minister and then again to resurrect his career, albeit briefly.

It is no surprise, then, that much space is devoted to the various selves of Kevin Rudd. The non-political Rudd: loving son to his widowed mother, committed Christian, budding sinologist, a devoted family man, a promising young diplomat. And, following his appointment as private secretary to Queensland Opposition leader Wayne Goss in 1988, ‘the single most important turning point in my professional life’, the political Rudd: bureaucratic supremo to Premier Goss, a hard-working and imaginative constituency MP, an effective parliamentarian and perhaps, above all, a philosopher prince in Australian politics.

Family plays a more important role than in most political autobiographies. His mother, a woman of heroic stature, had a profound effect on the shaping of his character; her centrality is reflected in the title of the opening chapter, ‘My Mother’s Son’. Raised as a Catholic and partly schooled, out of necessity, in Catholic institutions, as a young man Rudd had a wayward and eclectic path through various Christian sects. This tortuous path is narrated, often in minute detail and larded with great slabs of theology, until he finishes up an Anglican with his wife, Thérèse Rein. As their three children grow older, there are regular conclaves around the marital four-poster to determine Rudd’s political future. There is a certain cuteness in the treatment of the children: ‘babe’, ‘bub’, or ‘tiny tot’, rather than ‘baby’, though these are probably preferable to ‘our two little possums’. It is not surprising that half of the photographs reproduced in the book are family ones.

The sensitivity of Rudd to any efforts to impugn the integrity of himself or his family is revealed in a ferocious attack on Howard’s ‘full-time dirt unit’, which launched a series of rather crass and possibly counter-productive assaults on the Rudds in the run-up to the 2007 election. Each allegation, however trivial – picking wax from his ear on the parliamentary benches – is dealt with at length. A drunken night out at a New York strip club – ‘the coup de grâce of the Liberals’ dirt unit’ – is given two pages, while an attack (‘animal behaviour’) on the work practices of Rein is given a whole chapter, including a two-page reproduction of the summary findings of the Office of Workplace Services exonerating Rein.

A key feature of Rudd’s presentation is as a philosopher prince among the ruck of Australian politicians. The narcissistic element in this project is best reflected in his treatment of his maiden speech in the parliament. It is a remarkable speech – philosophic, polished, and reflective – but does it deserve a whole chapter, a series of quotes in the prologue, and, for good measure, reproduction in toto in an appendix? Numerous other speeches and articles, particularly of a philosophic bent, are quoted at length throughout the book.

This role is accompanied by much erudite baggage. Digressions abound: for example, Billy Hughes and ‘Red Ted’ Theodore, and recent Indonesian history and though ‘not the place to recount the Battle of Kokoda’, we still get a long paragraph on the battles of 1942. Rudd is easily distracted by historical or religious byways – the brothers Wesley and Methodism and Menzies’ red bishop, Ernest Burgmann. Allusions from the whole of human history abound – sometimes apposite. I like Senators Ray and Faulkner as ‘the Torquemadas of Senate estimates’. Some, however, are clichés, others simply baffling: while denying any relevance between Queensland Labor’s Old Guard and Napoleon’s Old Guard, we still get references to Austerlitz and Waterloo.

But it is not simply history. The philosopher is a cultured man. So we get ‘a silent, Munchian scream’, ‘the good Dr. Johnson’, and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. And he is an architectural critic too: Parliament House Canberra and the State Department Building Washington receive severe appraisals, as does the Presidential Palace in Baghdad: ‘Grand Assyrian architecture, in the tradition of the great king Ashurbanipal on the outside, with all the pretensions of faux French rococo opulence on the inside’ .

Rudd is well aware that by constructing this persona he is likely to be seen as an élitist ‘policy wonk’. He has three techniques to minimise the danger. First, for every high-culture reference he has a populist allusion. So we have his mother running like ‘Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, the Lithgow Flash’, and references to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and popular films – Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Peter Sellers movies. And there is ‘Operation Ratsak’, a two-page account of a battle with ‘a phalanx of the little buggers (Beijing rats)’. Second is the resort to the demotic. ‘Ockerisms’ flow free and fast: ‘without a brass razoo in our pocket’, ‘pain in the political derrière’, ‘to park a proverbial tiger’, ‘howling like a deranged dingo’. Rudd is aware that he might be seen as posing ‘as a man of the people through the orchestrated use of ockerisms’, but denies any artifice, claiming that they are the natural result of his upbringing. Finally, there is self-deprecation. The focus is on his lack of ‘hand-eye co-ordination’: in rugby, ‘second row for the underthirteen E team’; batsman with ‘the local Yandina C team … with a stunning season’s average of eleven’. Piano playing gets a notice: ‘not destined to become Australia’s very own Liberace’, as does do-it-yourself activities: ‘not a single home handyman bone in my body’. So insistent is this self-deprecation that it seems a form of ironic egotism.

Nearly two-thirds of the volume is devoted to Rudd’s parliamentary career to 2007. Two themes dominate. One is foreign affairs, more prominent in political debate over terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The second is party factionalism, the party having some five changes of leaders in as many years. Rudd became shadow foreign spokesman for Labor after only three years in parliament, when Simon Crean rejuvenated the Labor front bench in November 2001. This, for Rudd, offered the prospect of becoming ‘a Labor foreign minister in the reforming tradition of Evatt and Evans’. Being Rudd, almost the first thing he did was to ‘conceptualise’ a new foreign policy framework. Being omnivorous in his interests and an inveterate traveller, the post offered Rudd countless opportunities or digressions, and they are counted.

More importantly, Rudd established a national profile as ‘inquisitor-in-chief ’ on Australian involvement in the Second Iraq war in 2003. In two detailed chapters, he provides a powerful indictment of Howard’s ‘folly’ and that of his ‘preening lapdog’, Alexander Downer. (Rudd’s contempt for Downer is immeasurable: ‘the longest serving, though least significant, foreign minister in Australian history’.) In what can be described as the prosecutor’s brief, he demolishes each and every defence for that disastrous intervention, and charges Howard with deception as well as error. As he confesses, his account is designed to prevent ‘Howard’s self-hagiography becom[ing] entrenched in the Australian historical memory’. He follows this up with another forensic attack on ‘Howard’s Farce: The Iraqi Wheat for Weapons Scandal’, labelling it, with some justification, ‘the single biggest corruption scandal in Australian history’.

Interspersed between these chapters is a detailed study of Labor factionalism. Rudd never hides his view of ‘the party I love but whose faceless men I loathed’. He prides himself on his ‘preference for factional virginity’, though he compromised this in his pursuit of candidate selection. He seems to have enjoyed defying the Queensland party officers, comforting himself in the belief that they were not much interested in marginal seats such as Griffith where the candidate was in factional terms ‘expendable’.

In the turbulent internecine struggles in the early years of the century, Rudd refused ‘to act as factional cannon fodder’ for either side, earning thereby the ‘abiding distrust of both’. In 2002 and 2003 he voted reluctantly for Beazley; in the first case because he thought Beazley would be electorally a better bet than Crean, and in the second because of his antipathy towards the alternative, Mark Latham. Indeed, so bad were the choices in 2003 that Rudd contemplated throwing his hat in the ring, but after a family conclave around the four-poster bed and a preliminary canvass of potential supporters he decided ‘martyrdom’ was pointless. In 2005 both he and the left-wing Julia Gillard put their names forward, but, in Rudd’s words, their ‘respective collisions with factional reality’ led both to withdrew before a ballot.

Yet the logic of the non-contest of 2005 was obvious. If neither Gillard nor Rudd had the numbers singly to beat Beazley, might not a coalition of the two succeed. The midwife of this unlikely alliance was the Victorian powerbroker Kim Carr, who in a series of secret meetings brought the two together on a joint ticket, with Rudd as the lead candidate, given that right-wing and centre votes were more likely to leak to him. Ultimate success was ensured by the decision of another powerbroker, the NSW secretary, Mark Arbib, not to bind the NSW right to Beazley. And so to Kevin 07 and one of the greatest Labor electoral triumphs in 2007.

Up to this point Rudd’s career had been a success story, achieving his goals in a range of endeavours. In the nineteen years since taking up the vocation of politics, he had moved steadily through the ranks of the Labor party to become its federal leader. There had only been one brief hiccup, when he lost Griffith at his first contest in 1996 and briefly contemplated a return to diplomacy. Philip Flood, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, advised ‘voluntary early redundancy’ given Rudd’s ‘far too colourful career’ in recent times. Rudd suspects that Flood, a long-time confidant of Howard’s, may have acted at Howard’s behest. If so, John Howard created his own nemesis.

The euphoria of victory in 2007 hid but could not undo the damage of half-a-dozen years of fratricidal strife. Recrimination and animosities ran through the caucus. If the factional chiefs had been out-manoeuvred, many were unappeased, believing the party was now led by an outsider, one alien to the traditions of the party. Rudd’s own views suggested unhappiness at the very top. He considered his foreign minister, Steven Smith, ‘the most ice-cold politician I had ever met’; his deputy-leader in the Senate, Stephen Conroy, ‘no longer had a single Labor bone left in his body … he made me look like Che Guevara’; and his treasurer, Wayne Swan ‘wasn’t up to the job’. Whatever successes are to be chalked up, the core theme of the next volume will inevitably be the unravelling of a political career.

That unravelling is likely to be the subject of a prolonged historical inquest. Indispensable to that inquiry will be this thorough, if long-winded, account of Rudd’s pre-prime ministerial career. It is not so much a book to be read with pleasure but rather a work to be mined by the brave-hearted. In that quarry they will find invaluable nuggets for understanding the character, the personality, and the philosophy of Kevin Rudd.

Neal Blewett has had a varied career as an academic, politician, and diplomat. He first wrote for Australian Book Review in 1966.

This review was originally published in the April 2018 edition of the Australian Book Review.