On the winter morning of June 24, 2010, Australians woke in shock to discover they had a new leader. The night before, in what has since been described as a bloodless coup, the first-term Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was deposed by his then deputy, Julia Gillard.
Political journalist and editor-at-large of The Australian, Paul Kelly, says this was the beginning of the end of not one, but two prime ministerships. “It’s very rare in politics that you can identity a single moment when a prime minister and a government unravels,” he said.
Mr Kelly was speaking yesterday at the Sydney Writers Festival about his political account, Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation, which won the 2014 Walkley Award for best non-fiction book. Triumph and Demise is an insider’s look at the Rudd/Gillard Labor era from 2007 to 2013, and the concurrent rise of Tony Abbott.
Interviewed by Leigh Sales, presenter of ABC’s 7.30 Report, Mr Kelly explored the traits and dynamics of both former leaders and traced the erosion of loyalty between them. According to Mr Kelly, the mismanagement of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) under Prime Minister Rudd led to a growing mistrust between the pair.
Mr Rudd, who had labelled climate change the ‘great moral challenge of our time’, was sharply criticised by Mr Kelly for his willingness to postpone the scheme.
“Rudd was indulgent, he was inept, he was incompetent,” Mr Kelly said. “What he wanted to do was rather than embracing opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull (who aimed to pass the ETS), was to attack the Coalition whilst also passing the bill. He wanted the best of both worlds but he got nothing.”
The bipartisan bickering led to Tony Abbott being elected Opposition leader, on a platform against the ETS. Some Labor ministers argued for an early election on the issue, only for Mr Rudd to turn them down. Interestingly, Mr Kelly says that Brian Loughnane, the federal director of the Liberal Party, was quoted as saying “There was no way the Coalition would have won an early 2010 election”.
Mr Kelly was at his most compelling in his intriguing account of the night Mr Rudd was deposed. A few bad polls had not been well received in the Labor party room (even though the last Newspoll prior to Mr Rudd’s removal was 52-48 for Labor). By June 23, 2010, the leadership crisis had escalated; Ms Gillard’s backers had leaked it to the ABC and “Parliament House was in meltdown”.
“The Caucus panicked, the Cabinet was irrelevant and marginalised. Mr Rudd didn’t know how to use the cabinet to protect his own interests; when he needed them, they weren’t there.”
Ms Gillard at one point had agreed to a compromise deal with Mr Rudd and Labor senator and party elder John Faulkner, providing Mr Rudd a reprieve for a few months, only to change her mind 10 minutes later. “Ms Gillard decided to press the button,” Mr Kelly said. “Ms Gillard went out and assassinated Mr Rudd. She didn’t have to do it. It was a decision of choice, she could’ve kept him there, she decided to seize the opportunity go out and execute Kevin Rudd and it was a disastrous decision.”
Mr Kelly was highly critical of the approach taken by Ms Gillard and her supporters.
“Gillard was not ready for the job, she did not have a policy game plan when she took over, she was not able to explain to the Australian public why she was suddenly prime minister and absolutely incredibly she had no game plan to manage a vanquished Kevin Rudd,” he said. “What did they think was going to happen?”
Mr Kelly said “she should have become prime minister in a completely different way”, and was critical of her subsequent political judgment, particularly her political deals with the Greens. He rated her minority government as neither being successful nor a failure.
Yet Mr Kelly reached a different conclusion when considering the current era – that Australia’s political systems are in crisis. Current politics are poll-driven for short-term benefit, stuck in a real-time cycle leading to political and electoral fragmentation. Obstructionism has become the norm rather than the exception.
“I think Australia’s politics is broken,” he said. “I’ve been covering Australian politics since Whitlam, I’ve covered at close quarters every prime minister since Whitlam. I think this is a phenomenon around the Western world whether in the United States or Europe. You can actually see it’s more difficult for political leaders and government to roll out national interest policies.”
According to Mr Kelly, the rise of social media has empowered people “which is a good thing”, but with the changing media business landscape, the quality of news reporting, coverage and analysis is declining. Therein lies a problem where “there is more knowledge and information in society than there is wisdom”.