In June 2010 I remember being up late and seeing as story come through saying that Julia Gillard had just called a meeting with then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with speculation abounding that the meeting was to issue a challenge for the leadership of the ALP. At first it seemed as though the coverage was little more than the usual page-filling twaddle that then, as now, plagued the Australian media but as the night went on it became clearer that it was legitimate.
As I said to my wife when discussing the prospect of a Gillard government: Gillard would either be the best thing to happen to the ALP or the very worst. As time has progressed it has become clear that it is the latter. But that is a story for another article.
I detest Kevin Rudd and have done so for a very long time. Rudd displays many of the personal traits that should never be trusted in politicians: duplicitousness, dishonesty, envy, pride and for someone who has a reputation as a schmoozer and for being quite bright he has a startling lack of charm, wit and imagination. As I found with Mike Rann when growing up in Adelaide, politicians who cultivate a good media personality often have the most to hide and use their “public image” to mask obscene legislative changes.
I think a lot of people have forgotten that the Kevin07 campaign was constantly criticised for being too similar to John Howard’s campaign with both Rudd and Howard being savaged for their lack of spine and policy announcements that were often little more than one or the other saying “me too!” to a press scrum. In the end I think that Howard only really lost because he started to be seen as desperate to hold on to the Prime Ministership at any cost; the announcement of an ETS promise and the refusal to commit to handing over the leadership to Peter Costello severely damaged his legitimacy in the eyes of the non-committed voters and after 11 years of one Prime Minister there was a feeling that we needed change.
For Rudd this was a perfect situation. The similarity in policy between Howard and Rudd and Rudd’s experience as a very senior public servant meant that it was harder to attack him as a typical economically clueless Laborite and with an excellent media/PR team he came across as a young, erudite and statesman-like figure who was kicking the old fuddy-duddy in the pants.
Comparisons have been made between Rudd and Gough Whitlam in the sense that many expected Rudd to pull Australia into the 21st century in the same manner as Whitlam did for Australia and the 20th century and also in terms of the high popularity experienced by both Prime Ministers but Rudd’s capacity to bring change and his popularity were both artificial.
The phrase that perhaps best defines the Rudd years is “means-tested”: the intervention, WorkChoices (now Fair Work), Centrelink payments, stimulus payments, tax breaks were all means tested in a much more stringent (read: invasive) manner. One might think it is reasonable to have means testing of payments but it is something born out of the moral judgement of poor relief in the 19th century, it dehumanises and demoralises those who are tested and it creates the ridiculous situation whereby a couple with a combined income of more than $32,500 is seen as having sufficient income and thus is ineligible for study payments. When you consider that ex-NSW Premier Keneally asked the Gillard government to raise the threshold for the disaster relief levy because people earning $50,000 in Sydney were under such severe financial stress due to housing and living costs it puts the thresholds set by Centrelink into an all new light.
Much like Barack Obama, Rudd during his election campaign was seen as a beacon of hope, change and possibility but was quickly exposed as little more than a better-spoken version of those who had come before him. During his long honeymoon period one might have suggested that the light on the hill cast a halo around his head as it shone off his platinum hair; certainly his fans revered him as the saviour from Howard.
But, alas, the light on the hill turned out to have been stomped almost to extinction (My Friend the Chocolate Cake describes it as a dream no longer dreamt) and that light shining upon Rudd was one of his own creation. Where Chifley’s light was as an incandescent – bright, golden and hot – Rudd’s inspirational light was (is) like an energy efficient globe: dull and off-white, distorting the colours that had been so beautiful in Chifley’s light.
“I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for.” Ben Chifley, 1949.