Book Review by Troy Bramston: Rudd can’t decide if he’s Jekyll or Hyde

Posted in Book Reviews

Originally published in The Australian – 24 October 2017

By Troy Bramston

Kevin Rudd’s memoir reflects his kaleidoscopic personality. It seesaws between his often sunny image with characteristic self-deprecation and showcases his huge policy brain. But it also exposes the other side of Rudd, who assures us he is not bitter but systematically trashes his former colleagues and political opponents.

This book should be welcomed for the contribution it makes to better understanding Rudd’s unique personal journey and the insights it offers into our recent politics. It is well-written and I often found it to be interesting and compelling. But the narrative, which rarely flags, has a Jekyll and Hyde quality to it.

It is a deeply personal and reflective book. It was, Rudd told me yesterday, somewhat cathartic to write. His account of growing up on a farm in Queensland was happy and adventurous but soon darkened by financial stress, the hint of domestic violence and his father’s death after a car crash. Rudd still struggles to understand who his father, Bert, really was.

Rudd writes about family hardship, his troubled schooling at Marist College Ashgrove, where the brothers were “callous and cruel”, and the encouraging teachers at Nambour State High who sparked his interest in history and politics. There are chapters on life as a diplomat abroad, working for Wayne Goss, and his time in parliament as a backbencher and opposition spokesman. The account of the death of his ­mother, Margaret, in 2004 is moving.

The larger purpose of the book, Rudd reminds us throughout, is that politics is an honourable profession but it is not for the mild or indecisive. It requires courage and determination. Rudd begins with an essay that serves as a paean to politics. Despite his rollercoaster career, and the bitterness he still nurses, he remains an optimist.

But there are scores to settle. Rudd focuses his fire on the three Labor “roosters”, Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and Stephen Smith; John Howard’s approach to politics and his legacy in government; and the media, particularly “the Murdoch media”, as he writes so often with undisguised scorn.

Rudd despises the roosters who were Kim Beazley’s Praetorian Guard and his factional enemies. He regrets making Swan treasurer, believing he was intellectually not up to it and an embarrassment in parliament. Lindsay Tanner, he now says, should have been treasurer. Rudd also does not miss “Mad Mark” Latham and describes him as “deeply troubled” with an “all-consuming hatred”.

Rudd dismisses Howard’s foreign policy as a “doormat” for US interests and pockmarked by scandals such as “wheat for weapons” and “children overboard”, the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and the exploitation of xenophobia. He accuses Howard of aiding journalists to probe his personal life and Therese Rein’s businesses. Rudd savages Howard as a liar and a coward who mastered the “dark arts” of politics and wanted to “destroy” him and his wife.

Rudd also burns with anger when it comes to the media. He can’t forgive the scrutiny he was placed under and does make some valid points in this analysis, which is extensively documented. Yet Rudd overdoes his media critique, including of this newspaper. We did, after all, recommend a vote for Labor in 2007. It is churlish not to mention this.

He describes how the Rudd-Gillard leadership ticket was formed over takeaway food and wine in despair over Beazley and his deputy, Jenny Macklin, during 2006. Julia Gillard promised Rudd two terms as opposition leader, which he thought was a deal that would carry into government. Gillard “loathed” Macklin. Rudd thought Beazley lacked the hunger to be prime minister. When Rudd told Beazley he wanted his job, the affable leader “flew into a rage, his eyes wide, and nostrils flaring”. The book ends with the 2007 election campaign. (I worked as Rudd’s speechwriter during 2007.) It jogs the memory on how phenomenally popular Rudd was, the shrewdness of Labor’s ­Kevin07 strategy and the policy work undertaken to revive the party. Rudd emphasises that he is only the third postwar leader to take Labor from opposition to government.

Not for the Faint-hearted (Pan Macmillan) is authentic Rudd. It is replete with his folksy style, dad jokes and penchant for metaphors. “Fair shake of the sauce bottle” does get a mention. Rudd acknowledges some personal flaws and political misjudgments. He describes himself as “a bit of a self-righteous prig” at university. But there is chutzpah, too. “I’m a quiet, reflective sort of soul,” he suggests.

Plenty of Rudd’s colleagues have penned their memoirs, including Gillard and Swan. They were brutal about Rudd, who protests he could no longer ignore the “defenestration” of his character. Rudd has now told his story in his own words. It is a lengthy book at 674 pages with hundreds of footnotes. It is self-serving, like all memoirs, but it is an important contribution to our political history.

The book concludes with a nod to the next volume. Rudd believes he ran a “good government” but not one free from “failures”. As his head hit the pillow on election night 2007, he turned to Therese and said: “So what the f..k do we do next?”

For that incredible story of success and failure, farce and tragedy, we’ll have to wait. Rudd has already drafted most of it.