Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 November 2017
By Peter Hartcher
As a contrast in prime ministerial retrospectives, it’s a cracker.
This week, on the 10th anniversary of John Howard losing power to Kevin Rudd, the two former prime ministers were asked to look back on their terms in office.
In hindsight, Sky’s David Speers asked Howard, is there anything you would do differently? “Probably not,” he replied.
Which is pretty remarkable for a man who as prime minister served four terms, waged five campaigns and made decisions daily for nearly 12 years. Especially when his term included such utter disasters as the Iraq war.
He conceded but a single error. It was in his WorkChoices proposal for workplace reform. It was a mistake, he said, to remove the “no disadvantage” test. Removing this test opened the way for bosses to cut workers’ pay and conditions.
He later reversed the proposal, but it was too late. WorkChoices was one of the key reasons that he lost the 2007 election.
In other words, his only regret was that he opened the way for his own downfall.
But when Kevin Rudd was asked whether he had any regrets, the response was strikingly different. Of course, he had a list of proud achievements. But in contrast to Howard’s self-satisfaction, Rudd ran through four pretty serious regrets. Some were tinged with wistfulness, others smouldered with anger.
The first he cited was in reconciling Australia with its Aboriginal people. “Having done the national apology, and embraced national reconciliation, and got the states finally to agree to a $5 billion partnership to start Closing the Gap, I should have accelerated that process into constitutional recognition for the beginning of the second term of government.”
Not that he was allowed to remain prime minister long enough to lead Labor into its second term of government. But he could have started the process, at least:
“If I had used the momentum earlier, we may have been able to achieve more progress,” he told me. “That was an oversight on my part. I regret not being able to achieve greater progress on that.” The process, under the joint oversight of the Turnbull government and Shorten opposition, now seems moribund.
Rudd’s second prime ministerial regret: “I regret deferring constantly to the advice of my cabinet colleagues and not declaring open war on News Corporation.
“It became clear early in the government’s life that, when we would not commit to the News Corporation agenda, they set out to destroy the government. We had many cabinet discussions about it. The advice of many, many of the cabinet colleagues was ‘Don’t do it because it would only get worse’.
“I said, ‘How, precisely, could it be worse?’” Rudd and his government continued to try to work with Rupert Murdoch’s group, often trying to appease it, in vain.
Even this week Rudd gave an interview to Murdoch’s local flagship, The Australian. Even as he denounced the group, he was co-operating with it, a pragmatic surrender that testifies to Murdoch’s market power.
Rudd fumed: “It was a fundamental, ideological and corporate assault on the government because not only were we a threat to Murdoch’s personal ideology but his corporate interests.”
How, exactly? Because, said Rudd, his government’s decision to build the National Broadband Network, by connecting fibre optic cable all the way into every home and business in the country, was a threat to Murdoch’s “Fox entertainment cable monopoly” distributed through Foxtel.
Murdoch used his newspapers as daily campaign tools against the government, Rudd said. “The current dominance of Murdoch represents a growing cancer on Australian democracy. Any attempt to cede a TV network to Murdoch should be resisted at every level, just as his attempts to acquire all of Sky News in the UK should be resisted.”
How might his government have confronted the Murdoch media? “By naming it for what it was – a political coalition of the conservative party and the Murdoch interests. Name it and address it day in and day out.”
Rudd urges a future Labor government to call a royal commission into Murdoch’s relationship with the Coalition. Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull turned his original vision for a state-of-the-art NBN into its current bastardised version at least partly as a favour to Murdoch, Rudd claimed.
The government, of course, argues that it had to curtail the project because of its serial blow-outs in cost and timing. In its current form, the NBN will run not to every address but only to a neighbourhood box, or node. The last mile will continue to connect mostly through the old copper wire system.
Rudd’s third regret flows from his second. He regrets that he didn’t set up protections for the ABC. “That would’ve been helpful,” he reflected ruefully.
“Given Murdoch’s historical commitment to kill public broadcasting, something to have considered at the time was not to re-legislate the independence of the ABC but to entrench its budget: “To fix its baseline budget and entrench it in legislation with an automatic CPI acceleration.”
In other words, increase it in line with the annual rate of inflation. Malcolm Turnbull has not pursued the ABC, and Rudd didn’t suggest so.
But a future government that was determined to damage the ABC could still try to change the legislation, he acknowledges. Nonetheless, it would have to try getting it through the Senate and it would have “a bloody, public, parliamentary fight on its hands, and it would be interpreted as an assault on the national public broadcaster”.
Finally, and most unsurprisingly, Rudd regrets trusting some of his former Labor colleagues as much as he did. “I was enormously trustful of Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan because of all we had been through together. The core fact is that Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan just got greedy and, consistent with the worst Shakespearean tragedies, they were overwhelmed by personal ambition.”
Rudd, naturally, wants his prime ministership to be remembered for its achievements, not just its bloody demise.
It is indisputable that his government’s response to the fast-spreading international economic calamity of 2008-09 was a critical moment in Australia’s national fate. Or, at least, it is indisputable among fair-minded observers.
The US, Britain and most of Europe are still recovering from the global financial crisis, their near-zero interest rates are the lowest in at least 5,000 years, their politics roiled in recession’s aftershock. Australia has just recorded its 26th consecutive year of economic growth, a record for any developed nation and the envy of the world.
Of course, the Rudd government had help. It inherited the sound fiscal legacy of the Howard-Costello government. Without a dollar of national debt, the federal balance sheet was strong enough to extend an unlimited sovereign guarantee to the banks and to spend big on stimulating the economy. And the Reserve Bank was indispensable in urgently cutting interest rates to support growth.
“The hundreds of thousands of Australians, perhaps half a million, who didn’t lose their jobs will never know,” said Rudd. “A crisis avoided, in the minds of many, is a crisis that never happened. The bottom line is we handled the global financial crisis better than any other country in the developed world; that’s generally accepted in the literature” on international crisis responses.
“I think that remains the government’s central achievement, one of which I’m intensely proud.” As part of this response, Rudd’s government worked hard to persuade the biggest powers to create the Group of 20 – the G20 – as the main international crisis manager instead of the G8 or G14.
Other leaders have testified to the centrality of the Rudd effort. The result was, and remains, that Australia has a seat at the top table.
In shielding Australia against the serial waves of disaster that rippled across the world, Rudd saw that the big American insurance company AIG was trembling on the cusp of collapse in 2008 and wondered at the local implications. When he enquired, the Treasury told him that AIG was the reinsurer for about a third of all Australian insurance policies.
“If AIG had fallen over the systemic shock to corporate Australia would have been devastating,” Rudd said. So he called the White House. “I said to George W. Bush, ‘This is an alliance matter. It goes to the fundamentals of what our economy needs to survive. I really need you to prevent AIG from going under.’
“I’m sure I wasn’t the only voice on the matter, and God knows how significant the impact would have been for Asia and Europe too. But to George W. Bush’s great credit he said, I hear you’, and he did absolutely the right thing by us.” This intervention has not been disclosed previously. The US government took control of the failing AIG at a cost of $US180 billion.
Top of Rudd’s list of other accomplishments is defeating the Howard government. He was only the third Labor leader since World War II to take the party from opposition into government.
Another was his government’s decision to create a mandatory renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020. To this day, this is the biggest single source of Australian carbon abatement.
What about his decision to dump his core climate pledge, the emissions trading scheme? This was the decision that broke the people’s trust in Rudd and his government. Rudd said that he didn’t dump it, just deferred it. But his real answer was: “The truth is I didn’t have any support in the cabinet to go to a double dissolution election on it, except for Kim Carr. Julia Gillard explicitly opposed it and so did Swan.
“I’m tired of being the post-facto whipping boy.”
John Howard’s retrospective self-satisfaction is partly the striking of a pose, the Thatcheresque pose of a tough politician with no apologies and no regrets. But there seems to be some genuine equanimity too, no doubt flowing from the fact that he was allowed to live out the natural life span of his prime ministership, second only to Robert Menzies in its longevity.
Rudd’s reckoning of his time in power is an exasperated pride, still tormented by the manner of its end. He damns the architects of the coup, Julia Gillard and the factional henchmen who conspired against him, with a curse on behalf of Australian democracy:
“The coup-meisters bear a deep historical responsibility for establishing new forms of political brutality in taking down a democratically elected first term prime minister who was still overwhelmingly supported in the community and saved the economy from recession – simply because they didn’t like him.
“Their actions legitimised this new rank opportunism and brutality, and it’s infected the body politic in the Labor and Liberal parties. It was a deep assault on the public trust.”
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.