Politics Gets Personal in Australia

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“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.

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