Kevin Rudd had spent so much time out of the limelight since his electoral thrashing two months ago that Australians were beginning to wonder what he was up to. The latest joke about our former two-time prime minister is that his only public appearance recently was at a suburban Brisbane retirement home, where he asked an elderly woman if she knew who he was. ‘No, but if you check at the front desk, I’m sure the nurses can help you,’ she replied.
But Rudd’s decision to retire from the Australian parliament after 15 years as an MP and two years and nine months as PM (December 2007-June 2010, June-September 2013) is no joke. It comes at a time when his Labor party is in the deepest political valley: it’s out of power in all the main states (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia); and it’s battered and bruised federally after the mauling it received at the hands of the conservative Liberal leader Tony Abbott at the 7 September general election.
Moreover, the legacy of the 56-year-old Mandarin-speaking former diplomat leaves a lot to be desired. Rudd was never much liked by anyone who had worked closely with him and he presided over a dysfunctional government and unprincipled policy agenda.
Start with the personal. Mark Latham, the former Labor leader, reflected the views of many of Rudd’s own party colleagues when he once observed: ‘Those who know him best like him least. And those who say they like him have never actually met him.’
His colleagues dismissed him as ‘disloyal,’ ‘dysfunctional,’ a ‘saboteur,’ a ‘psychopath’ and a ‘complete and utter fraud,’ – and not behind the scenes, but on the record and in the most forceful manner possible.
Then there is the Rudd record. During his two stints as prime minister, he espoused so many different positions, often repeatedly and stridently, that he left virtually everyone with the impression that his arguments were always suspect.
Rudd’s successor – and predecessor – Julia Gillard was widely detested across the nation for legislating a carbon tax she pledged not to introduce. But Rudd flipped and flopped with the best of them – from carbon pricing to illegal immigration to fiscal policy. Even he did not know what he stood for.
Add to this that he ran an utterly dysfunctional and chaotic cabinet, that he regularly treated staff and public servants with rudeness and contempt, that he silenced internal critics and punished those against whom he held a grudge, that he undermined and betrayed colleagues, and that he held up vital decisions while he vacillated over policy and procedure, and you can see why he was so widely loathed.
And yet, for all his faults, Rudd rated high marks for sheer animal survival. He was so widely written off after he was brutally knifed by Gillard and a bunch of factional union thugs in June 2010 that he consistently promised that there would be ‘no circumstances’ under which he’d return to the Labor leadership and prime ministership.
But the kiss of death merely amounted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation: he revived and bounced back with tremendous force.
This touched on a characteristic Rudd thought he had in common with the great political gladiators of modern times (Menzies, Adenauer, de Gaulle, Churchill): his pursuit of a place in history and a resolve that he would cheat the scorers and defy Enoch Powell’s doctrine that all political careers end in failure.
But Powell’s doctrine did apply to Rudd, after all. He was a failure. And he won’t be missed. By anyone.
Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia.