Analysis

Why we still need to talk about Kevin

Labor has probably won the by-election for the seat of Melbourne which gives the Gillard Government five minutes of silence from journalists speculating on Gillard’s inevitable demise. 

Then again, maybe not. Consider this -- just over two weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, those of us who read the Sydney Morning Herald and The Ageand many of us still do on Saturdays, were greeted with a great big photograph of Therese Rein.

She was smiling, so this front page photograph and story could not be, god forbid, about some calamity that had befallen the Rudd family.

So what was this all about, this smiling visage of Rudd’s wife staring out at the close to one million readers of the SMH and The Age on a cold and wintery Saturday morning?

It was about nothing. Nothing had happened. Nothing was revealed. The reporter wrote the story with the sort of desperate floridness of language that reporters employ when they have nothing to say.

The opening paragraph beneath the photograph of a smiling Rein looking pensive described how Rein sat smiling, staring into the distance, contemplating her eventful life in business and as Kevin’s partner. 

That’s not all she was contemplating so pensively according to the reporter. Staring into the distance she was apparently mulling over a return to national prominence for Kevin and whether she could handle such a return.

In the silence, the reporter could feel the depth of Rein’s uncertainty, her anguish, but then reluctantly, carefully, not without regret and even pain, Therese Rein whispered, yes, on balance, if Kevin was called to greatness again, she would go to greatness with him.

Bravo! Hold the presses! That’s a page one story, no doubt. Therese and Kevin would, if called by destiny, return to the Lodge. 

As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, so it goes. And so it went on, down the road always taken with Kevin Rudd, to the inevitable speculation about Julia Gillard’s longevity, the government’s atrocious poll numbers and a frenzy of what from the outside seemed to be gleeful speculation and beat-ups by journalists about Gillard’s imminent demise.

No doubt, politically at least, this is an inept government and Gillard is a tactically inept prime minister. It is fair to assume she is badly advised. It is also true that there have been few minority national governments in Australia and none have been hugely successful.

On top of that, an inept government and prime minister are gifts to Tony Abbott. They play to Abbott’s strengths which frankly, are not about policy depth or vision or even ideology. 

Abbott’s deepest beliefs are not about small government or labour market deregulation or economic reform. His conservatism is fundamentally about social issues. He is not really a neo-liberal.

His great strength -- and his great good luck given how pathetic this government is politically -- is that he has that indispensible quality for an opposition leader confronted by an inept government; an ability to ferociously and memorably and consistently hammer his negative messages. It is a quality not to be underestimated. 

But we need to talk about Kevin because as much as Abbott has been both lucky and effective in his negativity, Rudd has played -- and continues to play -- his vital role in the destruction of the Gillard government and the undoing of Gillard’s prime ministership.

Following Rein’s anguished affirmation that she would, if called to do so, stand by her man, we had a preview of the article about Rudd in the Australian Women’s Weekly, out this week, in which he talks about becoming a grandfather.

The arrival of his "little possum" had prompted thoughts of what role he could play in delivering a better world for his granddaughter and how he’s passionate about Australia remaining a decent society and … well you can guess the rest.

For Rudd, the arrival of a first grandchild prompts thoughts of his role in securing Australia’s future. What, we wonder, could that role possibly be?

Hang on, there’s more. Yesterday, the Sunday papers carried a story alleging that, at last December’s ALP national conference, Rudd had told people that if he was still prime minister, his government would have legalised gay marriage. What’s more, he allegedly said, Julia Gillard had supported gay marriage in cabinet.

Great timing, given that Rudd allegedly said all this eight months ago and it becomes public only now when there is once again increasingly feverish speculation by journalists about Rudd’s leadership prospects. 

There is something appallingly fascinating about Rudd. Like all great narcissists, he is capable of great charm and at the same time, brazen, transparent and breathtakingly audacious self-promotion. 

He is clearly capable of playing the long game when it comes to political payback and he has a partner who unreservedly believes in his manifest destiny. In many ways, he is the most interesting politician of our time and in many ways, the most consequential for the Labor Party.

He was killed off in 2010, so emphatically rejected by his colleagues that he refused to put his leadership to a caucus vote when Gillard challenged him for the leadership. He was assassinated but he wasn’t dead. Gillard kept him alive, kept him in cabinet. And there he was during the 2010 election campaign, a ghost made flesh, wounded and sorry for himself and smiling brave, and teary and an overwhelming negative for Gillard and the Labor Party. 

Not to mention the anti-Gillard leaks that destroyed Labor’s campaign and no doubt cost it a couple of seats, seats that would have given Labor majority government.

Rudd was killed off a second time in February in the leadership challenge he said he was not mounting. During the challenge senior Labor figures attacked him with such ferocity that even Rudd might have given up any thought of working with these Rudd haters ever again.

Yet here we are again with the mad talk of a possible Rudd ascendency. Here we are again with Rudd and Therese Rein and Rudd’s supporters and the overwhelming majority of political reporters and commentators talking up Rudd’s manifest destiny. Far from politically dead, the cheer squad cheer, Rudd is alive and Labor’s only chance of avoiding an electoral catastrophe. 

Rudd is a singular figure, a one off politician, and the evidence suggests that Gillard and this Labor caucus are incapable of putting him to the political sword. One way or another Rudd will get his revenge on those who robbed his manifest destiny. Either he will be returned to his rightful place or he will see the Labor Party that cast him off, cast into the wilderness. For a long time.

*This piece was originally published by Business Spectator.


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