Book Review by Robert Manne: Kevin Rudd’s memoir lives up to its title

Posted in Book Reviews

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald – 27 October 2017

By Robert Manne

The first volume of Kevin Rudd’s almost always engrossing and sometimes surprisingly self-critical autobiography, which only takes us to Labor’s electoral victory in 2007, weighs in at 674 pages. Writing at this daunting length itself demonstrates some of Rudd’s strengths and weaknesses – his energy, his self-absorption and his unawareness of the likely response of others. Even his title is unintentionally revealing. Does Rudd realise that an almost seven hundred page memoir of a less than one-term Prime Minister concluding before he has even taken power will be mocked by the political nation as definitely not for the faint-hearted?

The story Rudd tells us goes like this. Born into a poor, conservative Queensland farming family, in his earliest years Rudd suffered serious ill-health – bow legs that needed surgery, rheumatic fever that left him with a weak heart. Perhaps more woundingly, he witnessed a cruel, distant and rage-filled father, who treated his wife brutishly and for whose affection Rudd still yearns. If his spirit was not crushed it was primarily because of a wonderful loving mother, a devout Santamaria Catholic, whom he loved no less deeply in return.

Rudd remembers the joys of a country childhood, but he recalls the pain more vividly. His father suffered an excruciating death following a road accident. Rudd witnessed the sadism of several Marist brothers. Parcelled out during holidays, he felt like an unwanted piece of “human detritus”. Having to spend one night in the family’s car with nowhere else to sleep, he understood the humiliation of poverty.

Young Rudd was already obviously driven. He worked so hard in his final school year that “my shoulders were frozen, my back ached, my eyes were tired and my brain was numb”. As one of nature’s “nerds”, he was hopelessly inept in all manly outdoor pursuits, burdened by sexual shame and, most importantly, “a total emotional klutz”, out of touch with “the Byzantine world” of his feelings.

Quite unusually for that era, Rudd took a year off after high school, working in odd jobs, adrift in the world and very lonely. In Sydney, of all things, he joined a Chinese Presbyterian choir. As a result of this and his schoolboy interest in Mao’s Little Red Book, he decided to study Chinese civilisation. Rudd slaved in the language laboratories of the ANU, eventually emerging as a speaker of “BBC Mandarin” with embarrassing consequences for his later life as a junior diplomat in China. He also joined an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Evangelical Union, becoming a priggish “goody two-shoes”.

Here Rudd met his second great love, the very middle class Therese Rein, whose understanding was deepened by her magnificent father, a pilot crippled during the Second World War, who had overcome his misfortune to live both long and well. Rudd almost sacrificed the love of his life by a characteristically klutz-like decision to complete his studies in Taiwan. When Rein restored relations, Rudd was lifted from the very deep depression into which he had fallen. Rudd and Rein’s love for each other and for their children is at the heart of Rudd’s world of meaning.

Rudd had now entered a lifelong relationship with a party that he seems never to have understood and that never understood him. Eventually he won pre-selection for the Brisbane House of Representatives seat of Griffith, failing in 1996, succeeding in 1998 and in the Tampa election of 2001 recording the highest swing of any sitting Labor member.

Rudd’s political rise involved his attempt to reconcile two apparently contradictory propositions – Tip O’Neill’s “All Politics is Local” and John Wesley’s “I look upon the whole world as my parish”. Rudd was an almost ferociously energetic and enthusiastic local candidate and then member. In the 1996 election, he and his team knocked on 36,000 doors. At the same time he aspired to be his generation’s inheritor of Labor’s great internationalist tradition, stretching from Doc Evatt to Gareth Evans.

Foreign affairs was not, however, the limit of Rudd’s ambition. In speeches and articles, Rudd sought to articulate a new social philosophy for the Labor Party, based on embracing the Keating economic reforms while unmasking the market fundamentalism of the Coalition, which he describes as an ugly philosophy of greed satisfying the interests of the few and not the many.

Time has not taken the edge off Rudd’s partisan anger. In Rudd’s eyes, John Howard was at once a supposedly genial suburbanite, a ruthless opportunist and the most hard-line conservative ideologue in Australian history. Peter Costello was a coward and a wimp, Alexander Downer “a preening lapdog” and the Murdoch press the insidious third member of the Howard Coalition government.

Rudd’s judgments of many of his Labor comrades are hardly more generous. When he reached Canberra the party was divided between Simon Crean and Kim Beazley. Crean lacked communication skills; Beazley “sent the party to sleep”. Refusing to support either side, Rudd became the enemy of both, especially the “faction” leaders – Wayne Swan and Stephens Smith and Conroy. Rudd describes Smith as “ice cold”, Conroy as paranoid and his old Brisbane “amigo” Swan, for whom he feels especial contempt, as a decade-long liability for Labor and an economic lightweight.

Rudd foreshadows the likely argument of his second volume, that the enmity of the faction leaders was the most important reason for his downfall in 2010.

It was in desperation, according to Rudd, that the party chose Mark Latham as leader. Rudd’s Latham was not merely “mad”, not merely driven by hatred, but more interestingly from the psychological point of view, by a determination to be hated. Following his spectacular election failure and personal meltdown, the party once more turned to Beazley. Rudd tells us that caucus had by now become so “dysfunctional” that he scarcely cared.

Kim Carr, we learn, was the broker of his unlikely anti-Beazley alliance with Julia Gillard. He claims she offered to support him as leader of the opposition for two parliamentary terms. As Prime Minister, as it turned out, she gave him less than one. When the next volume of his memoir is published Gillard’s treachery seems certain to provide Rudd with the second line of explanation for his downfall. When he won the leadership Rudd’s thoughts turned to the heroic journey recounted in The Iliad while holidaying by the waters of southern Italy where Odysseus had once sailed. He was now preparing himself for building a “New Jerusalem”.

Kevin Rudd’s story is riveting, invariably intelligent, occasionally grandiose and frequently shrewd, especially about the failings of his contemporaries and, within limits, of himself. A courageous editor might have tried to convince Rudd to trim his only moderately amusing family anecdotes; his philosophical musings, over politics and Christianity for example; and some of the detail of his supposed political triumphs, such as his blow-by-blow account of the Australian Wheat Board corruption scandal.

They might also have put a pencil through his most high-blown rhetoric and his irritating Gilbert and Sullivan-like verbal flourishes, where citizens are “good burghers”, ships “hove” and money is “mammon”. If they had succeeded, Not for the Faint-hearted would have been an even better book.

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, is published by Black Inc.