15 February, 2013

We need to talk about how we talk about Kevin

In what passes for political reportage and analysis in Australia in 2013, the only thing that comes up with more monotonous predictability than a Tony Abbott photo stunt, is speculation about another Kevin Rudd challenge for the leadership of the ALP and therefore, the prime ministership.  I’ve observed before how it’s much easier to report on personality politics than it is to analyse policy and how it might affect people.  The press gallery long ago decided that whatever they collectively think might be happening is ipso-facto what is happening.

Kevin Rudd continues to throw the media (and therefore, a large chunk of voters) for a loop because he refuses to stick to the script.  That is, any script that the eager-to-dumb-it-down media can allow for.  Ex-prime ministers are supposed to spend as little time as possible on the back bench before resigning from parliament, forcing the additional expense and inconvenience of a by-election.  They are then supposed divide their time between consultancies, gardening and charity work, returning to public prominence only for state funerals and the occasional embarrassing op-ed piece.  Anything else would mean they’re up to something, right?

For sure, this is the way things have gone for the last thirty years but that doesn’t mean it’s the way things always have to be.  This is not the United States where having held the highest office disqualifies you from subsequently holding any other elected office.  In fact, retiring hurt is a comparatively recent thing.

Prime ministerships almost never end well.  Bob Menzies was the last prime minister to leave office entirely on his own terms in 1966.  The only other prime minister who came close would probably be Chris Watson in 1907.  This does not mean the end of a prime ministership has to be the end of public life.  John Gorton was challenged by William McMahon in 1971 and although the leadership ballot was tied, Gorton resigned deeming the ballot a vote of no confidence.  Despite this, he remained in parliament, served in Billy Snedden’s shadow cabinet until 1974 and only left parliament in 1975 after unsuccessfully standing for an ACT senate seat as an independent.   As for McMahon, He also served in Snedden’s shadow cabinet until 1974, but he continued to represent his electorate until he retired in 1982.  I don’t remember him ever being accused of trying to destabilise the Fraser government just for being there.

For those who don’t remember anything before the 1983 election, we could instead look to New Zealand, where David Lange resigned as prime minister in 1989 but went on to become Attorney General and when the Labour party lost government, he continued to represent his electorate until 1996.  Former prime ministers don’t have to just go away simply because reporters in search of an easy story don’t know how to explain it if they don’t.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a tweet retweeted into my stream that said, “Gillard has obviously called the election now to avoid a Rudd challenge.”  I won’t name the person who said this, but their twitter bio says “Freelance journalist.”
I replied, questioning whether this was “obviously” the case and the reply that came back said, “Why else would she?”

Well, there are numerous reasons.  It prevents a year of speculation about the date, gives everyone plenty of time to make plans and it challenges Tony Abbott to make good on his promise that he has bagloads of policies ready to release just as soon as the election is announced.  So far, he has spectacularly failed to do this.

Now I’m not saying that any of these are the actual reason Julia Gillard broke with convention and announced the election date early, and I’m not saying she didn’t do it to somehow gazump Rudd, but whatever your theory is, you’re going to need a better reason for it than, “I can’t think of anything else.”  You could even try asking.

I’m not denying for a moment that Rudd is quite visible, and this should be embraced by the Labor Party and their supporters.  The fifth anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations should be something that Labor is proud of and they should expect Rudd to have made an appearance for it whether he was still prime minister, a backbencher, or whether he’d quit politics altogether in July 2010.  Likewise, they should welcome his regular appearances in the media since he advocates Labor policy far better than a lot of Cabinet.  Parties always send lower-rung members out to spruik their policies.  Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and even former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull have been far more visible than Tony Abbott has this month.  Does this mean they’re all gunning for the top job?  Of course it doesn’t!  I’m not saying they aren’t, just that you can’t automatically assume they are just because they were on tele saying stuff.

I’m also not denying that Rudd probably wants to be prime minister again.  Who wouldn’t?  Who doesn’t?  Rudd’s ambitions were made clear with his disastrous and embarrassing leadership challenge last year, but having been soundly defeated, there’s no compelling evidence that Rudd is trying to roll the leader any more than the usual background chatter that is around in any party at any time.  There’s always someone who wants to roll the leader at the best of times.  Joe Hockey nominated at the last Liberal spill, so are we really supposed to think he is behind Tony Abbott and not seeking to undermine him with every television appearance?  Really?

Of course Rudd wants to be PM again but so what?  So does every single member of parliament.  Nobody dreams of being Parliamentary Secretary for Trade.  They want the top job.  For no good reason, we have had quite a few stories recently about how people who knew Tony Abbott when he was young thought he might be prime minister one day.  Guess what?  Pick any MP, federal or state, or even a lot of local councillors, and I’ll bet you’ll find people in their past who tell you, “We all reckoned s/he could be prime minister one day.”  It means nothing!

It’s not Kevin Rudd’s fault that he can’t leave the house without some journo fresh out of media studies, or an old hand who ought to know better, saying, “Rudd seen with new tie. Leadership challenge imminent?”  It’s not Rudd’s fault that the standard of political journalism is currently on a par with Big Brother.  He was voted out of the house so why hasn’t he gone away?  The reason is because there’s no reason why he should.  I’m not going to repeat his tired line about cold showers but everybody just get a grip.  What I will repeat is my plea for the press to start reporting what is actually happening, not what you think might be happening or would like to happen.


  1. So True, Best line: "Former prime ministers don’t have to just go away simply because reporters in search of an easy story don’t know how to explain it if they don’t."

    If the ALP want to win they should stop fighting about Kevin Rudd. He is very very popular in Queensland and I know that State Govt should have nothing to do with Federal Govt, but that is just not true out in punter land, so if you pit Kevin's popularity against Cambell Newman's unpopularity, has to be votes there and would be silly to toss that out just due to petty leadership rubbish. Surely the ultimate end game for the ALP is to stop the Libs winning power?

    1. State issues may be different from federal but the parties are peas in a pod. Queensland is a lesson to the rest of the country about what can happen when you elect an unknown quantity for the sake of punishing the incumbent. Labor should be embracing every opportunity to remind people of that.

  2. I agree entirely that there is no reason for Mr Rudd to go away, BUT I wish he would work more effectively for the Labor cause. At present, so much of his efforts and appearances seem to be 'look at me 'events. In my opinion all he is doing is cheapening his legacy for no benefit.
    I think howver he denies it - even if he said ' I won't stand and if called I wont serve' MSM still would spin it.