Book Review by Madonna King: Public frenemies: Kevin Rudd’s ruthless review of his Labor mates

Posted in Book Reviews

Originally published on the Brisbane Times – 24 October 2017

Kevin Rudd’s tome Not for the Faint-hearted shines a glaring light into the frenemy fiefdom that masquerades as the Australian Labor Party.

Now the Liberal Party – or indeed any other big political party – is probably as dysfunctional, but Rudd’s autobiography, released today, lays it all bare for Labor.

The hate between MPs can be palpable. So is the distrust. And the ambition is naked and all-consuming.

On the surface, to the TV cameras, it’s all smiles. Behind closed doors, it’s all knives.

“As a people we tend to be very good at tearing down,’’ Kevin Rudd says. “We are not so good at building up. And this judgment is rendered most harshly, and rightly so, for those who enter public life.’’

The irony is that Rudd’s assessment of some on his team, including those to whom he awarded top jobs, is ruthless.

Just take his assessment of Stephen Smith, who served as a minister for foreign affairs and minister for trade as well as minister for defence for Labor.

“Stephen Smith was the most ice-cold politician I had ever met,’’ Rudd says. The man shared former ALP treasurer Wayne Swan’s deep cynicism for the “business of politics’’ and was so neat that he would be “discombobulated if anyone disturbed the plastic folders of papers that made up his universe’’.

This was Labor’s foreign minister, the person charged with selling Australia – and his prime minister’s vision – to the world!

Swan, Rudd says, was out of his depth in Treasury and failed to improve over time.

(At this stage, you are probably wondering why he didn’t get rid of him. I’m wondering that, too).

“Years later, one Treasury official would describe Swan as a small man with a big ego and a giant chip on his shoulder who … was not interested in and apparently incapable of being educated in the Treasury craft by his own department,’’ Rudd says.

Keating’s office christened the pair the “glimmer twins’, policy-free zones and the state secretaries’ club, good for polling rotten for policy’’, we’re told.

And the pair, along with Rudd’s media minister Stephen Conroy, were known as the Roosters, who were “deeply accomplished in the dark arts’’ and who “loathed’’ Julia Gillard with a passion. “Their loathing for me ran a close second,’’ Rudd says.

Conroy “was a mercurial personality’’. “From laughter to rage, from friendship to near-mortal combat, from highs to lows, and all in an instant.’’

The three of them had “painstakingly constructed’’ a plan over the years to see Kim Beazley lead the party first, followed by Swan or Smith. They wanted to ensure Simon Crean never did.

Rudd says it was his refusal to back a challenge against Crean that broke off his relationship with Smith, Conroy and Swan. “I had refused to act as factional cannon fodder,’’ he says.

Rudd’s assessment doesn’t stop there, even towards those on his own side.

Mark Latham was one of the most divisive figures in modern Australian Labor politics. “Even his friends from that time, including Joel Fitzgibbon – who in time became a friend of mine – would later find, to their personal distress, that Latham had no difficulty whatsoever in turning on his own, including those closest to him.’’

Rudd adds that he found Latham’s “utterly impenetrable tome’’ Civilising Global Capital an attempt to brand himself as the “new intellectual leader of the Labor movement’’.

Closer to home, here in Queensland, his view of his colleagues is no less savage.

Take Bill Ludwig, for example. “In Queensland, the main right-wing faction was the Australian Workers’ Union, led by Bill Ludwig, whose views of the world ranged somewhere between Neanderthal and Neolithic,’’ Rudd explains.

And Bill’s son, former senator Joe Ludwig? He was sent to the Senate by his father, “the Cro-Magnon man of the Australian Labor movement and the closest Australia came to having a Chicago boss controlling such a large slice of the party’’.

Former ALP state secretary Cameron Milner was “a young thugster in training, working hard to become a senior, respected thug at the AWU finishing school for conservative party apparatchiks’’.

Of course, thank goodness, some venom is left for the other side.

Former Liberal prime minister John Howard, Rudd tells us, was an abysmal failure as a political leader and misled the public on the reason we went to war. He had also “gone after my wife because he had failed in his pursuit of me’’ and his dirt unit would have had to watch 6400 hours of tape to find the footage of Rudd picking wax out of his ear.

Peter Costello would never have the “gumption to challenge’’ Howard, who recognised that “core weakness in Costello’s character’’ early on.

To be fair, Rudd has also given a big tick to some of his former parliamentary colleagues.

Anthony Albanese, “firebrand of the left, is the most gifted natural politician of his time’’.

John Faulkner “had a withering eye for anything resembling posturing and puffery. He was a man elementally dedicated to the Labor cause’’.

Alan Griffin was one of the best marginal seats campaigners in the country and Robbie McClelland was “himself the essence of common sense, decency and reason’’.

Gareth Evans was “the most effective foreign minister in Australian history, rivalled only by Bert Evatt in the war and immediate postwar years’’.

On the other hand, Alexander Downer was the “least significant foreign minister in Australian history’’.

Rudd’s book is written in an entertaining way and gives his views from childhood, through to the desk of prime minister.

At times it’s funny, self-deprecating and downright intriguing.

But it also shows why voters are turning against the big parties. It shows how our leaders can stand in front of a camera and fulsomely support someone they despise.

This is part one of Rudd’s two-part autobiography. And it ends with Rudd still supporting, strongly, his colleague Ms Gillard.

She’s friendly. She does her job well. She has a wicked sense of humour. And she made mistakes – like the “strange request’’ of wanting to sit next to him at the front table in Parliament.

“I was lost for words. Julia said it would underline the fact that this was a team from day one. I was uncomfortable with the idea. Also thought it was nuts … she eventually relented,’’ Rudd says.

It’s just a hunch, but I reckon Kevin Rudd is setting Julia Gillard up for a big fall. We’ll just have to wait for volume two, to find out.