While I was visiting Australia in late October, the country learned of the death of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The former Labor Party leader and prime minister was a large and controversial figure in Australian politics in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually becoming a national icon. His death at the age of 98 ignited a wide-ranging discussion about his vast impact on Australian life. Not even his harshest critics disputed that Whitlam had been a charismatic and consequential leader who profoundly shaped his country.
One of the consequences of Australia’s renewed focus on Whitlam has been to underscore the relative smallness of his most recent Labor Party successors as prime minister, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Rudd was elected leader of the Labor Party in 2006 and became prime minister in 2007. But in a stunning development, after three turbulent years as leader, Rudd was deposed by the Labor Party as Australia’s prime minister and replaced by Gillard, his deputy. However, Gillard’s tenure as prime minister was equally troubled, partly as the result of Rudd’s relentless efforts to undermine her. Three years into her term as prime minister, Gillard was ousted and replaced by Rudd. Several months later the vicious circle finally ended, as Rudd and the Labor Party suffered a decisive defeat in national elections and Tony Abbott, the leader of the Liberal Party (which is Australia’s conservative party), became the new prime minister.
The Rudd-Gillard rivalry and the collapse of the Labor government combined Shakespearean tragedy with 21st-century political farce — a point that is made compellingly and provocatively in Paul Kelly’s book, “Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation.”
Kelly is one of Australia’s leading political journalists. He is the editor-at-large of The Australian newspaper and has also served as the paper’s editor-in-chief. He is the author of seven other books on Australian history and politics and has skillfully chronicled an array of Australian prime ministers, including Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard. “Triumph and Demise” is based on Kelly’s extensive reporting and interviews with more than 60 participants in the political drama between 2007 and 2013, including Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and their top associates.
Kelly tells the story of the Rudd-Gillard debacle forcefully, angrily and in a way that is accessible to those who are not experts in Australian politics. He argues that their battle divided the Labor Party, undermined its policy agenda, damaged its standing with the Australian public and highlighted systemic problems with the nation’s political system.
The Rudd-Gillard brawl should be seen in the context of recent Australian political history, Kelly argues. After eight years in the political wilderness following the controversial dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, Labor dominated Australian politics between 1983 and 1996 under the leadership of two purposeful and formidable prime ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. They pushed market-oriented economic policies that focused on generating growth and bolstering the Labor Party’s relationship with the business community. They deregulated the economy, floated the currency, cut tariffs and promoted other structural changes. Hawke and Keating also drove the Labor Party to modernize its policy agenda and modify its organizational structure. Like Whitlam, they succeeded in uniting the Labor Party’s trade union and white-collar wings.
Labor’s ascendancy ended in 1996 when the Liberals led by John Howard defeated Keating’s government. Howard skillfully helped the Liberal Party secure the reputation of being competent economic stewards who supported both business and struggling middle-class voters whom he called “battlers.” Howard won four national elections and served as prime minister until 2007.
Rudd, a relative newcomer to Parliament, won the Labor Party leadership in 2006 and mounted a spirited, even inspiring, campaign to defeat Howard’s Liberal Party in 2007. According to Kelly, Rudd forged a close partnership with Gillard and the revived Labor Party launched a fierce attack on Howard and his policies on climate change, education, workplace rules and refugees seeking to live in Australia. “Rudd and Gillard were the brightest stars of their generation,” Kelly writes, adding that “the Rudd-Gillard pact had the potential to set up Labor for a decade in office.”
They were opposites who complemented each other. Rudd was from outside the traditional Labor Party base of Sydney and Melbourne. Hailing from Queensland, he was a former diplomat and a devout Christian who had a prominent wife and several children. Gillard’s political base was Melbourne, where she was an established Labor Party insider with strong union ties. She was single, had no children and described herself as an atheist. “Rudd and Gillard took control of the Labor Party, steamrolled Howard, and, in office, looked set to ignite a brilliant chapter in Labor’s saga,” Kelly writes.
Rudd’s winning 2007 campaign was based on the promise of a vigorous new leadership that enacted climate change legislation, education and health care reforms, and fiscal conservatism. It was a large agenda. “There would be revolutions ad infinitum. He made it sound so easy,” Kelly writes.
Rudd initially struggled to find his footing as prime minister but then was energized by the need for an emergency response to the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. He crafted several fiscal stimulus packages, worked hard to make the G20 an important forum for global financial cooperation and took advantage of Australia’s strong fiscal position and sound banks to help prevent the nation from falling into recession. Australia, in fact, was one of the few nations in the developed world to avoid a recession during this time.
However, once the financial crisis eased, Rudd foundered. As Kelly sees it, Rudd blundered badly on three major issues: climate change legislation, a mining tax and refugee policy. Rudd also presided over a chaotic and disorganized government that lurched from policy to policy, was obsessed with the media and tried to win every news cycle rather than assemble a long-term agenda. “He had little of Hawke’s cunning, judgment or smell for power,” Kelly writes of Rudd.
Kelly argues that Rudd was a brilliant “solo player” but not a strong leader. He was intelligent but undisciplined, erratic and politically cautious. His failure to fight passionately for climate change legislation earns particular scorn from Kelly. “Rudd wanted to help save the planet, but not at any political cost to himself,” the journalist asserts.
He also says that Rudd treated people badly, including his staff, cabinet ministers and other members of Parliament. “His grasp of human nature was defective,” Kelly charges.
A Labor Party operative once called Rudd the most hated political figure in Australia in half century. Within the party, Rudd was criticized for centralizing decision-making power in the prime minister’s office, mismanaging the cabinet, trying to do too much, lacking clear priorities and focusing on politics rather than substance. Party members grumbled that Gillard often had to clean up after Rudd and that he failed to make firm decisions.
When Rudd’s polling numbers tumbled in 2010 and it looked like the Labor Party might lose the approaching election, Labor leaders decided to drop Rudd and install Gillard as party leader and prime minister. This move shocked the nation. Kelly says the full story of Gillard’s participation in Rudd’s dismissal remains in dispute. Gillard insists she stepped forward only after her colleagues were convinced the Rudd government was imploding, but others claim Gillard played a far more active role in instigating Rudd’s ousting than she has acknowledged.
Whatever the full story, Kelly says Labor’s decision to depose Rudd was a foolish political move. “The destruction of Rudd triggered a series of falling political dominoes that would reduce Labor to a minority government within months and would see its convincing defeat three years later. By her action Gillard assumed political responsibility for its consequences,” Kelly writes. He argues that Gillard’s role in Rudd’s dismissal tainted her badly; she became known not as the lady-in-waiting of Australian politics, but as Lady Macbeth.
Gillard became prime minister in June of 2010, but had neither a narrative for why she was the nation’s new leader nor a plan for governing. She was an inside player with strong ties to the trade union wing of the Labor Party but was not well known or especially popular with the public. Gillard struggled to govern and had to negotiate an alliance with the Green Party after the 2010 elections to stay in power. Kelly calls this deal in which Gillard made major policy concessions to the Greens a “political death warrant” that undermined her authority. Presiding over this tenuous alliance, Gillard was also undermined by Rudd, who remained in Parliament, and was hammered daily in Parliament by Abbott, who relished his stance of total opposition.
Kelly argues that Gillard adjusted some of Rudd’s policies but as her poll numbers plunged, Labor leaders grew restless and decided to oust her — and replace her with Rudd. The final Rudd-Gillard contest was about personalities and power, not ideas or visions. “There was no glory in the final Rudd-Gillard showdown…. It wasn’t about the Australian people; it was about saving the Labor Party. This was a bunch of desperate politicians saving their necks. Past Labor leadership contests had a grander purpose: winning office or staying in office. There was no honor left. The Rudd-Gillard era had been reduced to a mad, self-interested scramble for power,” Kelly writes.
Back as prime minister, Rudd tried to present himself as a wiser and chastened leader but he had changed little. He ran a chaotic, negative campaign and was defeated by Abbott and the Liberal Party. Labor’s government, which began with such promise in 2007, collapsed in ignominy in 2013. Both Rudd and Gillard retired from politics and their colleagues were left to rebuild a badly diminished Labor Party.
Kelly is sharply critical of both Rudd and Gillard, rebuking them for lacking the necessary wisdom, maturity and vision to be successful prime ministers. Rudd, he argues, was too much of a talking head without convictions, while Gillard was too much of a transactional dealmaker without vision. Neither was able to set aside personal ambition for the good of the party or the nation. “Their tragedy lay in the willful, unnecessary destruction of their partnership. This event doomed the Rudd-Gillard generation. It would destroy the Labor government they had won, and provoke recognition that the party faced a deeper crisis.”
In Kelly’s view, the Rudd-Gillard debacle shows the underlying weakness of the Labor Party. He says it needs to update its policies, decide what it really believes in and rebuild its organizational structure. It’s now getting squeezed on both sides of the political spectrum — by the populist right that is mostly aligned with the Liberal Party and by the idealistic left that is captivated by the Green Party and prefers purist positions to real-world solutions.
Kelly also argues that Labor’s demise is part of a broader crisis of Australian democracy in which there is a large and growing disconnect between the severity of the nation’s problems and the quality of its leadership. “The deepest lesson of the Rudd-Gillard era is that Australia’s political system is failing to deliver the results needed for the nation, its growth in living standards and self-esteem…. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This de-coupling constitutes the Australian crisis,” he writes.
“Triumph and Demise” is a good, if discouraging, book. Kelly’s description of the travails of the Rudd-Gillard government is both compelling and distressing. He shows that really smart people can do really dumb things — out of impatience, anger or while under siege — which undermine their long-term objectives. The struggles of Australia’s democracy that he describes are similar to those in other nations that are also hurt by fierce political polarization and by the tendency of opposition parties to reflexively criticize the government for everything rather than offer constructive, and possibly controversial, alternatives.
Kelly’s book is a work of first-rate journalism. He is tough, fair-minded and draws on an impressive array of sources who tell their side of the story, usually on the record and directly. This book will be an essential tool that is used by historians to understand this chapter in Australian history.
However, “Triumph and Demise” is less impressive as an example of polished history. The events are too fresh, Kelly is too close to the story and he is too angry and frustrated to render a totally fair account. The book is very long, often repetitive and sometimes hyperbolic. Some of Kelly’s judgments are too sweeping and overly harsh.
“Triumph and Demise” provides a provocative perspective on a fascinating but dispiriting time in Australian political history. It also, perhaps inadvertently, highlights the importance of leaders such as Gough Whitlam who endeavored to do big things out of conviction and with courage. This is not likely to be history’s verdict of Rudd and Gillard.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.