Politics Gets Personal in Australia


“Politics is about power.” With those words, Kevin Rudd opened his first speech to Australian parliament as a newly-elected member, in the early evening of November 11, 1998. He might have gone on to add that for him, power is intensely personal.

Now that we know the outcome of Rudd’s bid to reclaim his job as leader of the Australian Labor Party, and thus prime minister – a resounding 71-31 win for incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard (initially reported unofficially as 73-29) – it’s worth asking what it was all about.

It was indeed about power, it was very personal, and it was very much about Kevin Rudd.

For outsiders, its all been quite bemusing: Rudd’s late-night D.C. press conference resigning as Australian foreign minister, the accusations, the unprecedented vitriol, the tearful calls for unity, and the fact that a clear majority of Labor Party MPs refused to vote for the candidate clearly preferred by the Australian people.

On the surface, Australia wouldn’t seem a candidate for this sort of political turbulence. It’s hard to believe, but the country’s last official recession was in 1991, which means that it has made it through the Asian financial crisis, the IT bubble implosion, and the global financial crisis with barely a bump in the road. Australia has by far the highest GDP per capita (nominal; it is second behind the United States on a purchasing power parity basis) among the G-20 countries, and the highest U.N. Human Development Index score. Its cities are consistently ranked among the world’s most livable. Unemployment is low. Its AAA-rated public debt is just 20 percent of GDP. Australian banks are ranked among the world’s safest. The country has a seat at the table of the major regional and global organizations. It does well in sport. Australian politicians by and large have the luxury of debating the future, not how to dig themselves out of a hole of their own creation.

Sure, much of this good fortune has to do with the China-driven commodities boom, but it’s also clear that by international norms, Australia has been well governed. Not perfectly, by any stretch, but other countries have strong commodities exports, after all, and mining and agriculture still only account for about 10 percent of Australia’s economy.

Nor does the country tie itself in knots on “values” politics, unlike, say, the United States. Social beliefs are rarely politically defining in Australia. Center-left Rudd started his political career leading an evangelist group. His then-Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is an atheist. Conservative John Howard was a vigorous proponent of gun control.

So surely, you would think, its politics would be stable.

And until recently, that was the case. One of the more significant corollaries of the 1924 decision to make voting compulsory in Australia, is that it has favored mainstream politics. Australia has had its would-be populists (Pauline Hanson and Joh Bjelke-Peterson spring to mind; like Rudd, they both emerged from Queensland) but they tend to struggle for traction beyond the state level. So since Gough Whitlam’s disastrous stab at socialist utopia in the early 1970s, the country has given the top job to a series of professional pols pursuing middle-of-the-road policies.

That’s been just fine for the Australian electorate. Between November 1975, when Whitlam was controversially sacked by the then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, and December 2007, when John Howard finally lost an election, Australia had just four prime ministers (Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and John Howard).

Enter Kevin Rudd.

Now it’s almost of truism of parliamentary politics that leadership ends in failure, and none of those four leaders left voluntarily. Opposition leaders also came and went, deposed in intraparty challenges if they failed to impress or were deemed past their use-by date. But Rudd has been a saga unto himself.

Driven and self-regarding even by the lofty standards of political leaders, Rudd had ferociously pursued power ever since a period of childhood hardship following the untimely death of his father. Religious and an intellect-on-his-sleeve type, Rudd entered the Labor Party through the rather unconventional route of diplomacy, spending seven years as a foreign policy professional, becoming fluent in Mandarin in the process. Without a natural power base within the party, still today dominated by unions and their lawyers, Rudd’s rise through the ranks was nonetheless impressive. Eight years after that first speech he was leader, and soon after it was evident he would be the next prime minister.

Rudd was elected in December 2007 in a landslide, ending 11 years of conservative government under Howard. Immensely popular with the public, Rudd quickly moved to repeal Howard’s unpopular and highly pro-business Work Choices industrial relations legislation and took the lauded steps of signing on to the Kyoto Protocol and delivering an overdue apology to Australia’s “Stolen Generations.”

But whispers soon emerged that Rudd had some management problems. The early talk was of a frenetic work pace. But then came stories of inefficiencies, an explosive temper, anger, a lack of consultation, and a megalomaniacal obsession with concentrating all power in his hands, yet a reluctance to make decisions.  Staff and colleagues couldn’t stand him. The government was taking on too much and had become paralyzed, they felt.

For a long time, lips remained sealed. This was the man who had, after all, finally returned Labor to power. He also remained extraordinarily popular with the Australian electorate. This is in itself somewhat of a mystery. Australians, especially those more predisposed to vote for a Labor government, have traditionally liked their politicians to display a common touch. Rudd’s predecessors as Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, and Paul Keating all affected a streak of larrikinism (the professed Australian fondness for larrikinism is our own little War of Independence). Thus the earthy wit of the extremely erudite Whitlam (Country Party member in parliament: “I’m a country member.” Whitlam: “Yes, we remember”), the drinking tales and broad Australian accent of the Rhodes scholar Bob Hawke, and the famous combativeness of antique aficionado and Paris lover Paul Keating.

December 3, 2012 at 15:22

Must. Not. Comment.

February 28, 2012 at 21:21

CIA was also active against the Whitlam government when he seemed to threaten Pine Gap (a major co-run Australia-U.S signal intelligence gathering facility) and sent a cable to ASIO (equivalent to NSA), a day after it was sent the Governor General dismissed Whitlam government on a parliamentary technicality. So there is already precedence for a CIA backed coup to defend U.S military interests.

Saying that, it’s not much of a coup. Noone likes Rudd so a leadership challenge was expected, it didn’t need CIA help. His appointment as foreign minister also goes against that theory.

February 28, 2012 at 16:38

Here are three reasons for a CIA backed leadership coup.

Rudd wanted to drawdown Australian troops numbers in Afghanistan.
Rudd was pro-china (although wary of their annexation of Australia) and probably wouldn’t have agreed to the 2500 U.S marines in Darwin. Or at least not in the grand public fashion in which it was announced, co-opting Australia as a partner in the U.S military encirclement of China strategy.
This was followed in 2011 by a U.S-Australian agreement that allows almost unlimited access to some Australian military bases.

So perhaps Rudd’s more nuanced views on China meant his agreement over the even closer U.S-Australian military relationship was under question. Instigating a push by the CIA and which Gillard responded to by overthrowing Rudd. The U.S threatened the U.K of severing their military intelligence sharing agreement over some minor political spat, they might have threatened something similar to the Australian politico’s if they failed to agree to the closer military alliance.

Gillard consider Australia ‘blind’ overseas without this intelligence sharing agreement. And recently she forbid taking handnotes in discussions, some called her ‘paranoid’ for this but perhaps she knows better, mainly that the CIA is a busy bee downunder.

There are alot of doubts about U.S military strategy, especially when when it comes to China and involves Australia. Australia now, is such an important partner they have power in affecting U.S strategy and that will cause understandable backlash from the U.S intelligence community.

February 28, 2012 at 15:05


Fu Man-chu
February 28, 2012 at 11:17

What nonsense is this and what relation does it has to someone’s else comments? nutcase!

February 28, 2012 at 07:05

As mentioned in the article, Gillard may not be likeable, but at least she gets things done – nothing worse than an indecisive leader. Personally, I don’t like either of them (I’m a liberal man).

Also, the fact that Labor has held power for ‘nearly half’ of the post Whitlam era isn’t a bragging right; it’s a two party system, so someone had to be in power when the public wanted a change from the Liberals or the Coalition.

Chris B
February 28, 2012 at 05:35

Could we please stop repeating this fabrication that Kevin Rudd spent 5 years learning mandarin. He was coached for a week with an translator before a press appearance, this was “preserved” on tape, and I’m led to believe that there was quite a lot of swearing berating the Chinese involved.

February 27, 2012 at 19:55

Why do I have the niggling feeling that Washington was behind Gillard’s coup de’tat and Kevin Rudd’s downfall?

February 27, 2012 at 16:40

labour members today have just voted for the destruction of the labour party just because the didn’t like there boss that put them in power well grow up labour get with the times well at lest enjoy the little time you have left before you all get voted out this is just plain not acceptable i look forward when tony wins next election and watch all you labour scum cry of home i will never vote for labour again the only way i will vote for labour is if they reinstate kevin rudd he out as out of the financial crises i would be very pleased to see that the only seating labour candidate in next election was kevin rudd

Joel Petley
February 27, 2012 at 15:22

Excellent analysis of the situation. Either the ALP reforms, or they will see their power as a political force in this country fade away.

thomas dufy
February 27, 2012 at 13:39

Truly labor has lost the most honest and scrupulous leader they could have. A bitter blow to both Australian politics and the labor party. The caucus have done away with the only clean member of the party, the faction system that has dominated party politics for so long has become so obviously odorous to the public. Evidence by this failure to re-instate a prime minister who was capable of standing aside from the factions [as cited in the article he was never attached to a union, having entered via way of foreign correspondent].

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief