Kevin Rudd doesn't fit the mould for a Labor leader. Perhaps that's why John Howard is finding him so hard to handle, writes Paul Kelly in the Weekend Australian, October 27-28 2007
There has never been a Labor leader like him. Kevin Rudd, raised on a Queensland farm, dedicated to his Christian faith, devoid of any working-class culture and trained as a Mandarin-speaking technocrat, is married to a businesswoman who runs a global company.
Rudd campaigns for the Lodge under the “new leadership” banner. But his leadership is more than new; it is a culture shock for the Labor Party. Rudd is not a trade unionist. He’s not a class warrior. He doesn’t come from a Labor family. He is not part of the post-’60s social progressive movement that helped to transform Labor. Like Britain’s Tony Blair, he falls outside the emotional heartland of his party.
If Rudd becomes prime minister on November 24, this will launch an experiment in modernisation for Labor. The party will never love Rudd. It may, eventually, come to like him. Maybe. But Rudd, like any successful leader, seeks to change Labor in fundamental ways.
Elected to Parliament only in 1998, an Opposition frontbencher only since 2001, without ministerial experience, largely unknown to the public when he became leader in December 2006, Rudd has outmanoeuvred John Howard for most of the year. It has almost been too fast, too easy, too deft.
The nation seems to like Rudd but has little feel for him. He is a complex man with an inner life that he protects. He inspires multiple interpretations. He is drawn by cartoonist Bill Leak as comic-strip adventurer Tintin, “a little nerd who prevails in the end”. He was detested by Labor’s 2004 leader, Mark Latham, as a “shocking piece of work”. He is praised by renowned China scholar Pierre Ryckmans for his “determination and self-control”. Sydney 2GB’s Philip Clark, Rudd’s university contemporary, says he has an ambition for power that transcends any politician Clark has ever met.
Rudd sees himself as a modernist. Witness his remarkable partnership with his wife, Thérèse Rein, his commitment as a cross-cultural politician and his pragmatic policy outlook.
When Rudd drafted his maiden speech on November 10, 1998, he and Rein worked together in his new Parliament House office for several hours from 10pm the night before, Kevin as wordsmith and Thérèse at the word processor. “We stayed up until 3am,” he says. He is proud of the final paragraph: “I do not know whether I will be in this place for a short or long time. That is for others to decide. But what I do know is that I have no intention of being here for the sake of just being here. It is my intention to make a difference.”
Rudd’s words, typed by his wife, reflected a shared sentiment. Rudd meant what he said. Kevin and Thérèse became partners in politics just as they had been partners since meeting as adolescents on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin 22 years earlier, in 1976, at an Orientation Week breakfast at the Australian National University. She was 17 and he was 18.
“I think you’re the first Kevin I’ve ever met,” she’d said to him then. For those who know Rudd it is the perfect opening, to tease and provoke. It worked. Rein reports that she found the young Rudd to have a sense of humour, to read Hansard and to dance the Pride of Erin.
The Kevin-and-Thérèse partnership is based on family, love and mutual support. But it is turbocharged by shared political ambition. Their marriage is a blend of old and new – traditional values in a sharply modern context, a marriage between the business manager and aspiring PM.
Rein recalls their discussion when Rudd decided last December to challenge Kim Beazley for the Labor leadership: “He said, ‘I’ve made up my mind. I am going to do this. But are you okay with that? How do you feel about it?’ I just said, ‘Go for it.’ I was married to him and I was rather biased. I thought it would be heavily contested.”
She tells the story during a dinner interview with Rudd in Sydney last month, the night before his first meeting with George W. Bush. During the interview Rudd is witty and assured, showing not the slightest tension from his contest with Howard or concern about his vital meeting with Bush.
For most of his career Rudd was a swot, a bureaucrat, a diplomat and an adviser. He performed these roles with such brilliance that few people ever imagined him in any other capacity. The kid from a share farm in rural Queensland had the brains to succeed – head of the Foreign Affairs Department would have been a stellar career. But the Lodge? Forget it. Nobody saw Rudd as a politician. It didn’t fit.
Nobody except Rein. Her husband’s progress, it seems, has never been a surprise to her since that first breakfast in 1976. She told Robert Macklin for his recent biography that when Rudd decided to run for politics, “I had been waiting for Kevin to get to this point. It was what I anticipated from when I first met him. From the very first meeting.”
Rudd has made the once-improbable idea of his prime ministership into a likely proposition. Australians do not easily embrace new leaders. Consider the fate of Beazley, Latham, Andrew Peacock, Bill Hayden and John Hewson. The public usually takes many years to get conditioned to putting a new identity into the Lodge.
Yet Rudd, in rapid time and with subtle tactics, is near the prize. His success has baffled much of the Howard Government, the Labor Party and the media. He seems to have broken all the rules.
If Rudd wins, he and Rein will make history. She will be the first wife in the Lodge who has kept her own name, the first wife who runs a business, and they will be the richest ALP incumbents to ever occupy the office. Rudd will be the first PM to have headed a public service department and the first to be fluent in an Asian language. Not only 18 years younger than Howard, he will be the first PM to have finished high school in the ’70s, a generational leap. He belongs to the smart casual generation.
The Liberals are still confounded at Rudd’s success. In private they shake their heads in repressed rage, convinced the Rudd phenomenon is a perverse event of nature. The only question now is whether something will go horribly wrong in the campaign. Will the Rudd dream implode?
In Australia the rumble of political giant-killers is heard far off as they thump their way through the jungle. Nobody just slides into our highest office. Certainly not John Howard, who spent 22 years clawing his way to the top; not Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who were discussed and dissected as future PMs many years before they broke through as self-declared “men of destiny” in identities long known to the public, Whitlam after 12 years as ALP deputy and leader, Hawke as the nation’s trade union boss whose quest for office resembled a decade-long television soap opera, and Keating who was eight years as Treasurer before taking most of the ninth to knife Hawke on the big stage.
Rudd’s rapid elevation seems almost to violate the natural order of politics.
What chance a few years ago of having as Labor PM a Queenslander of rural conservative origins, a Christian intellectual whose hero is an obscure German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a leader whose political style is deeply shaped by John Howard.
But it has happened. It is the Kevin Rudd story.
His politicisation came in two stages – home and education. His father, an ex-serviceman, sharefarmed a 160-hectare property near Eumundi, and Rudd volunteers that “I grew up basically in a Country Party/DLP household”. His father, Bert, was Country Party and his mother, Margaret, was Democratic Labor Party. Given rural Queensland in the ’60s, this is unsurprising. Yet it is unusual for a Labor leader.
On religion the family was split; Bert was a Mason and Margaret a Catholic. Kevin was his mother’s son. In a family of four kids the eldest son, Malcolm, joined the army, sister Loree briefly entered the convent, brother Greg was a lost soul before getting into lobbying and Kevin, the youngest and last at home, was centre of his mother’s attention.
His father died from complications after a car crash when Rudd was 11 years old, and for two years the family struggled. Margaret had to leave the farm. They moved about without a guaranteed home, on one occasion sleeping in the car. The iron entered young Kevin’s soul. Asked about the events in his life that drove him into politics, Rudd immediately nominates this childhood experience.
“Going through a couple of years without having a place that you could safely call your home, I don’t think this should happen to anybody,” he says. “It was the absence of any kind of safety net to pick people up.”
He talks about the lack of dignity, and the strength of his mother. “What I remember most about Mum is just her sheer guts in putting her life back together,” he says. “Mum had nursed at the Mater hospital in Brisbane during the war and then, 20 to 25 years later, after my father dies, having barely done anything on the nursing front since, she decides to retrain to provide for her family.”
The second factor Rudd nominates in his politicisation is the impact of Whitlam and his trips to China. “I watched Gough on television on his triumphal return from Beijing and I thought, ‘That’s really interesting’,” he says. As a 15-year-old Rudd wrote to Whitlam saying he wanted to become an Australian diplomat. His direction was set.
The key to Rudd’s future was the fusion of determination inherited from his mother and his natural brain power. But while dux of Nambour High School, his exposure to the world was limited. “I had certainly never met anyone who was in the Australian Labor Party at the time I left school,” he reflects.
He chose not the conventional path of a law degree but to embrace the study of China. That meant moving to the ANU in Canberra. It was a fateful choice that shaped Rudd’s future – he met Rein, became a committed Asianist and was on the escalator for a diplomatic career.
“I knew him well at Burgmann College though we weren’t friends,” says Sydney radio broadcaster Philip Clark of their ANU days. “The main thing about Kevin was his membership of the Christian evangelical group. He was a leader within this group and quite active around the college. He and Thérèse were always together and recognised as a couple within the Christian group. There was another lot on campus – the fun-loving, ball-organising, bar crowd – and nobody ever confused Kevin with them. There were lots of political debates but I have no recollection of Kevin being active in politics. I was surprised that he went into politics.”
With Rudd, there was no time or interest for drugs or grog. He worked part-time about Canberra and spent most of 1979 in Taiwan refining his language study. Rudd was not the type of student to be diverted either by political idealism or personal indulgence.
Pierre Ryckmans, the scholar who supervised Rudd’s honours thesis, tells this paper: “At an age when most young men, however bright, are still uncertain of their identity – which makes them confirm to various fashionable trends – Rudd conveyed a sense of quiet assurance and maturity. He was neat, courteous, sound, reliable and articulate.”
Describing Rudd as one of the most impressive students he encountered over more than a quarter of a century, Ryckmans adds: “The qualities that set his personality apart were his determination, self-control and consistency.” Ryckmans says he recently bumped into Rudd in the street; they chatted about family matters and he was “amazed” by how much “he was still the same man”.
“As a young man he had already more maturity, thoughtfulness and poise than most of his peers,” Ryckmans says. “And now the middle-aged politician looked more fresh and young than many of his colleagues.”
In 1981, Rudd won entry into the foreign affairs intake. Devoid of any networks, contacts or private school background, it reflected the Rudd career path: promotion by merit. “I just saw an ad in the paper, applied for it and, to my great surprise, I was accepted,” Rudd says. Such remarks, typical of Rudd, are too self-effacing. In truth, his selection was a no-brainer.
This was also the year he married Rein (at St John’s Anglican Church in the Canberra suburb of Reid) and joined the ALP.
Rudd says he was drinking Ben Ean Moselle back then, only to “discover after about six months in DFAT that it was not seen as the mainstream beverage”. He loves to depict himself as a humble country boy, a technique not without political advantage.
“I am very much a kid from the country,” he says. “I love a lot of rural Australia. I had a horse. I grew up on a farm. And when I stomp around the place where I grew up, every corner of those 500 acres (200ha) has a memory, it is fantastic – where your father taught you how to boil a billy, how to swing the billy, and point out to you where birds’ nests were in the trees.”
Ah, the simple life. But the farm boy and his wife were posted to Sweden. Rudd jokes about DFAT: “You speak Chinese, so you’re off to Sweden.” But it worked. Rudd learnt how an embassy worked and became a mini expert on Scandinavia. His next post was Beijing, where he reported on Chinese politics, mastered the language and created ties that are relevant today: from Professor Ross Garnaut, his ambassador, now his climate change adviser, to Cathay Pacific boss Rod Eddington, later a business adviser.
After his Beijing posting Rudd was on the escalator of success. “I saw him as a potential Secretary,” says former DFAT chief Dick Woolcott. “He was one of our best and brightest.” But Rudd, the model diplomat, was outgrowing DFAT. The political magnet was in operation.
Out of the blue Rudd rang the office of then defence minister, Kim Beazley, to ask about a job. He got Beazley’s adviser, Hugh White, but the conversation went nowhere. In Brisbane in 1988 on departmental business, Rudd saw in The Courier-Mail a job advertised with State Opposition leader Wayne Goss. “That’s how I came to apply for it,” he says. “Much to my surprise, again, Goss offered the job to me. I knew nobody in the Queensland Labor Party.”
Why did he switch paths? He figured Goss would become premier. But there was something more personal. “It was a great opportunity to test whether I actually had it in me to work in politics,” Rudd says. It was a voyage of discovery. He reflects that “the reason I ended up in Queensland was because I couldn’t get a job with Kim” – the man whose leadership he would terminate 18 years later.
For Goss, Rudd was a dream appointment: a clever workaholic with ideas. For three years he was Goss’s chief of staff and from 1991 to 1995 he was director-general of the Cabinet Office, the pivotal public service job.
Queensland-based Professor Pat Weller, director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, says Rudd had to cope with a culture shock – it was the first state Labor government for 30 years and public service views were entrenched. “From his time with Goss we know that Rudd is demanding,” Weller says. “He pushes people and pushes them hard. He won’t be satisfied with second-rate advice or performance.” Goss says Rudd wasn’t a “traditional bureaucrat”. He worked proactively with Goss on new policies.
These seven years in Brisbane were decisive – Rudd learnt how to run a government (as Goss’s lieutenant), he learnt about strategy, priorities and policy-making. His technique was to impose control on process and outcomes. He saw the flaws in Australia’s federal system at ground level and became convinced of the need for reform. When given the chance by Paul Keating, who was PM, Rudd forced through an Asian-studies agenda for Australian schools.
In the process Rudd answered the question he posed for himself. Yes, he could do politics. Indeed, he felt he had a flair for politics, a view not everyone shared. The next step was as obvious for Rudd as it was surprising for others. He wanted federal ALP preselection.
“I was surprised,” Goss says. “I saw him as a very good adviser, astute in the backroom. I said, ‘This is out of left field.’ But when he explained, I saw how determined he was to do it.”
Having outgrown DFAT, Rudd had now outgrown the public service. He explains with precision the conclusion he reached using the Asian-study issue as the template. “You can do all the policy work, sign up the governments, craft the report, get the education ministries and the finances ministries to agree,” he says. “You can advise politicians as much as you like. But as a public servant, you cannot bring the public debate to embrace a proposition. That’s advocacy. And that was the deciding point for me.” Rudd wanted to become an advocate – and that meant politics.
Yet he picked the wrong election. Rein says he knocked on 32,000 doors, but as ALP candidate for Griffith, Rudd was engulfed in the anti-Keating 1996 backlash and lost the seat. Election night was the first serious blow in Rudd’s career, the test imposed by adversity.
Goss recalls: “I went to see him on the Monday and said, ‘Don’t run again unless you are sure because some people will want to oppose you.’ But he was undaunted. I was struck by his absolute determination even on that day not just to run again but to win the seat.” Rudd and Rein reassessed before Rudd finally became a consultant on China trade and commerce and waited for the next election.
“The intervening three years from 1996 to 1998 were very beneficial for Kevin,” Goss says. “He would sit at shopping centres talking to anyone and everyone. In the process he became a community-based politician. I’ve seen his transition. He tapped into people and their needs. Kevin must have bought more bikes than virtually anybody in the southern hemisphere, perfecting the technique of giving them to community groups and schools.”
Rudd came into Parliament at the 1998 poll, along with Victorian MP Julia Gillard, now his deputy. Nobody had expectations of Rudd as a future leader. There was a long queue in front of him. But he was widely seen, if he thrived, as a future Labor foreign minister. That made sense to nearly everyone. But Rudd, as usual, had his own plans.
In politics Rudd was a surprise - beneath his smooth exterior was a pulsating energy, drive and ambition. Rudd worked the party but worked the media even harder, ranging across the spectrum from his tabloid television Sunrise spot to policy debate in the broadsheets.
No federal MP in several decades, not Keating, not Howard, displayed such relentless media awareness. Eventually, Rudd just wore down his colleagues. It was as though his religious fervour had been redirected into politics.
Within three years he was shadow foreign minister, appointed by new leader Simon Crean after the 2001 election. It was Crean’s weakness that reduced the ALP caucus to a smouldering mass of rivalry and recrimination. Rudd was appalled when in 2003 Latham became leader, an experiment that he privately predicted would end in tears.
In the notorious Latham Diaries, Rudd’s media habits were branded as “worse than heroin” with the class-obsessed Latham asking: “If he grew up in poverty in rural Queensland where did the posh accent come from?” Latham decided that, if successful, he would dump Rudd as foreign minister.
In January 2005, after the Latham implosion, Rudd was appalled again when Beazley returned to the leadership backed by the faction chiefs. Rudd had wanted to run. “The intense factionalism of the January ’05 exercise I think revolted us,” Rudd says of himself and Gillard. “And at the time we discussed how much it had revolted us.” Rudd is careful with words, and when he says “revolted” that’s what he means. The Rudd-Gillard ticket was seeded at this point.
In his December 2006 challenge to Beazley, Rudd was cool and calculating, revealing an inner confidence under pressure. One message he delivered at his victory media conference flanked by Gillard was that of “new leadership”, now the campaign slogan. Another was that “family is important and for me it is essential” – thanking Rein and their three children, Jessica, Nicholas and Marcus.
Contrary to some past ALP leaders, Rudd is socially well adjusted. Showing little sign of personality dysfunction, he has no trouble talking with people, young or old. Rudd is rooted in a local community, engages people across the board, loves travel, campaigns naturally and possesses a populist streak. The parallels with Howard are striking.
He avoids direct comparisons with Blair and his Third Way, yet this is the best approximation of Rudd’s profile. “I have always seen myself as a Labor moderniser,” Rudd says. Blair exploited the moderniser tag to win election after election. Rudd sees its utility – the moderniser appeal transcends old ideologies, commands the future position in politics and is geared to the marketing age.
What does being a moderniser mean? Rudd tells me that his priorities as PM would be economic prosperity based upon his education revolution, reforming the federation, a commitment to infrastructure based on broadband, climate change and reviving Australia’s diplomatic role as a middle power. It is a pragmatic agenda that distances Rudd from Labor tribalism. It also narrows the differences in politics.
Rudd has learnt that having a modern marriage meant conflicts of interest. “I am prepared to put Kevin first and my country first,” Rein said in May before revealing her decision to sell the Australian arm of her job placement company. It was a difficult but correct decision. As PM, Rudd would be ultimately responsible for the company’s government contracts even though removed from the decision-making. It would be an untenable position. Rein’s decision displayed the sheer determination of this partnership to get to the Lodge.
On policy Rudd is careful, elusive and contradictory. He likes to purchase policy options across the spectrum – so he is both pro-business and pro-unions, he is for government intervention and for free markets, he is for quitting Iraq and staying in Iraq, he is for abolishing WorkChoices but wants workplace flexibility. A policy wonk and a populist, Rudd rejects Howard as yesterday’s man but keeps most of Howard’s policy.
Who is the real Kevin Rudd? The answer is that Kevin Rudd spans both identities. Rudd is a work in progress, a political identity still under construction. Whether he can control the hubris generated by any political victory, and possesses the personal qualities needed to run a government, are unknown.
His life story, influenced by his mother and his wife, and his own discipline and selfimprovement, point to an underlying sense of values and character. His elevation since entering Parliament and his performance as ALP leader also point to an ambition fuelled by a remarkable single-mindedness.
Paul Kelly is The Australian’s Editor-at-Large.
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