Exactly four weeks after being ousted by his own party, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally emerged to face the media Wednesday at a local school in his own inner-city electorate in south Brisbane.
The Queenslander of humble rural origins who secured one of the Labor Party’s biggest electoral victories in 2007, had been forced out of office by factional leaders worried that the slogan ‘Kevin ’07, gone in ‘11’ would ultimately prove correct.
After a short family holiday on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Rudd flew to New York City to attend the Australian-American leadership dialogue. His meeting there with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sparked speculation of a UN post for the experienced former Australian diplomat. But perhaps unfortunately for Labor strategists who might wish him gone, Rudd returned to Australia a week later, just in time for the start of new Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s election campaign.
‘Lovely to be back in Australia,’ Rudd told a Channel Seven reporter at Sydney airport, but for Gillard it was a case of grin and bear it.
‘I anticipate that Kevin will be predominantly focused on work in his local electorate,’ she was reported saying by the Sydney Morning Herald.
And Rudd was doing exactly that on July 21, when he made his first media appearance of the election campaign at Coorparoo State School. The media throng of around 20 journalists and camera operators that greeted Rudd was as large as Gillard’s on her earlier Brisbane visit, but Rudd stonewalled reporters on their questions concerning the party’s night of the long knives.
‘Mr Rudd, Australians want to know what you’re going to do in this election campaign? What will your role be?’ one reporter asked.
‘Looking at schools like this; it’s terrific,’ he was quoted as saying in response by the Sydney Morning Herald.
Rudd then grabbed a microphone and started asking schoolchildren their thoughts about their new school hall—built with funding from his much-maligned school building scheme.
The somewhat nonplussed reporters could only watch and record the banal question-and-answer session.
Finally, before leaving the school, he gave a sound bite for the evening news bulletins:
‘I’ll be talking about local issues…because I’m the local member. As for national issues, they lie properly in the province of others, and I won’t be commenting on those.’
With a margin of 12.3 percent, Rudd’s seat of Griffith is officially the safest Labor-held seat in Queensland. Having held the seat since the 1998 federal election, Rudd has until July 29 to decide on whether to continue his political career.
While widely expected to recontest his seat—his willingness to toe the party line would indicate as much—Rudd would be the first former prime minister to do so since the Liberals’ Sir William McMahon in 1980. McMahon quit just two years later, having never recovered from his election loss to Gough Whitlam in 1972.
Rudd need never work again, however. Supported by the Canberra parliamentarians’ generous pension scheme and his entrepreneurial wife Therese Rein’s business interests—her net worth is estimated in the millions—a life of leisure beckons.
But the 52-year-old workaholic (nicknamed ‘Rudd 24/7’ for his breakneck schedule) is unlikely to retire to the golf course.
Should he recontest his seat, his main opponent would be the political novice Rebecca Docherty, a 30-year-old payroll manager and former barmaid nominated by Queensland’s Liberal National Party. Docherty has told reporters she would ‘listen to the people’ and accused Rudd of taking the local voters for granted, although she’s expected to be replaced by a higher-profile candidate if Rudd chooses not to stand.
But while the initial media speculation focused on the impact ‘killing Kev’ would have on Labor’s vote in Queensland, recent polls have vindicated the party’s hatchet men.
Polling by environmental group the World Wildlife Fund in four key marginal Brisbane seats showed an increase in Labor’s primary vote of 4 percentage points, with the Coalition vote dropping the corresponding amount, according to the Courier Mail newspaper.
The polling indicated Labor’s two-party preferred vote had risen from 48.5 per cent in mid-June to an election-winning 52 per cent. And according to the latest Galaxy poll, nearly twice as many voters favour Gillard as prime minister over Tony Abbott.
If voters are sorry about Rudd’s departure, they appear to be even more grateful that he has gone. But somewhere in the world, there must be a new job available for a former leader and diplomat?