Australia’s fallen prime minister

A look at Kevin Rudd’s rise and fall – and rise and fall.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd conceded defeat at a Labor party function in Brisbane [AFP]
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd conceded defeat at a Labor party function in Brisbane [AFP]

Sydney, Australia – Kevin Rudd, the once extremely popular Prime Minister of Australia who was humiliatingly knifed by his own party and replaced with his deputy Julia Gillard in his first term of government, managed to resurrect himself to face a near impossible re-election battle.

Renowned for his intellect and work ethic, yet branded a “psychopath with a giant ego“, “rude” and “difficult to work with” by his own colleagues, he still consistently topped opinion polls and was well loved by voters.

Referring to himself as “the comeback kid”, Rudd had hoped of a historic return, but Australia’s ruling Labor Party was electorally annihilated in the country’s federal poll on Saturday.

Australian voters vented their collective spleen and showed that Rudd’s role in his party’s leadership merry-go-round trashed his party’s brand beyond repair.

Opinion polls showed Rudd was, at one point, Australia’s most popular prime minister for 30 years, riding high on his landslide “Kevin 07” campaign win, which returned the ALP to power after 11 years of coalition rule.

Revolving leadership

By 2010, his popularity waned after a series of policy mishaps – including the scrapping of a much-hyped emissions trading scheme, and an unsuccessful attempt to tax Australia’s powerful mining giants.

The consequences were severe – ALP colleagues moved against him and Rudd was unseated in his first term in office by his deputy, Julia Gillard.

The public fall-out was enormous, despite the democratic legality of the manoeuvre under Australia’s Westminister electoral system, which is based on the British model.

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Professor John Wanna from the Australian National University Political Science programme told Al Jazeera that Australian leaders at federal and state levels could be dumped, almost at an instant’s notice.

“So if they’re dropping in the polls or not getting on well with their colleagues, they’re cut off at the knees quite quickly,” Wanna said.

In 72 years, three sitting prime ministers have been torn down by their own parties.

Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, lost support of his party colleagues in 1941 and stood aside, before returning in 1949.

In 1991, Paul Keating successfully challenged Bob Hawke to become prime minister, and Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd in 2010.

However, Rudd’s resurrection this year has made his journey unique.

“In the modern, disciplined party politics it’s very unusual for prime minister to come back,” said Professor Wanna.

The real Rudd

Following the 2010 election campaign, which left Labor in a minority government, reports of “the real Kevin” began to surface in an attempt to explain to the public why he was removed.

A video of Rudd swearing was mysteriously leaked, although the office of Gillard, by then prime minister, denied involvement. 

Treasurer Wayne Swan took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement slamming Rudd’s “dysfunctional decision-making and his deeply demeaning attitude towards other people, including our caucus colleagues”.

Swan accused Rudd of putting his own “self interest” ahead of the party and the Australian people, “undermining the government at every turn”, and blamed him for “tearing down” the 2010 election. 

Former Labor Party President Warren Mundine also gave Al Jazeera a blistering assessment of Rudd’s character:

“We have a saying at the moment in politics – If you like Kevin Rudd, and he is very popular with the public who haven’t met him, then do not meet him because you won’t like him,” Mundine told Al Jazeera.

“He was a very, very difficult man to work with. His is the biggest ego I’ve ever met,” Mundine said.

Rudd’s former senior press secretary Lachlan Harris also told Al Jazeera his old boss could be “prickly” and “difficult”.

“Rudd is a very determined, really hard working person – and with that determination and work ethic, [he] has some prickly edges,” Harris told Al Jazeera. 

“Let’s be really clear – a normal, nice person wouldn’t have come back after what Rudd has faced over the last couple years. Your gentle, friendly face would have packed up and gone away a long time ago, but Rudd’s not like that.

“I worked with him for a long time. I think he’s a good bloke, but he’s a very tough, very determined operator and he demands a lot from people – and sometimes people can find that very difficult.

“The steely determination that allowed him to come back after everything that had been thrown at him by his own side, it has some prickly edges to it, that’s an absolute reality, people have just got to accept that.”

Comeback triumph

Despite the public character crucifixion, how did Rudd manage to unite his party and win enough support to return?

Out of office, Rudd continued to poll well with the public, and remained more popular than his successor, Gillard.

Rudd used his time as foreign minister and on the backbench to play the long game, waiting for Gillard’s dismal polls to bring the question of leadership back to the fore.

As support for Labor under Gillard continued to plummet, Rudd’s backers called for his return to avoid electoral defeat – he won the subsequent leadership ballot 57 votes to 45.

According to Peter Fray, editor-in-chief of the Australian arm of political fact checking site PolitiFact, the backing of former union leader Bill Shorten, who was instrumental in the original coup against Rudd in 2010, was a major turning point for Gillard’s supporters.

“They went back to Kevin because he was their best chance, and people like Bill Shorten made that pretty clear with the change of leadership – that Kevin was the best option to save the furniture. The polling around Julia suggested they were heading to an historic loss,” Fray told Al Jazeera.

In his acceptance speech after ousting Gillard, Rudd described how recent events in politics had “failed the Australian people”.

“There has just been too much negativity all round,” Rudd said.

“There has been an erosion of trust – negative, destructive, personal politics has done much to bring dishonour to our parliament, but done nothing to address the urgent challenges facing our nation, our community, our families. In fact it has been holding our country back and all this must stop.” 

‘A new way’

Labor’s 2013 campaign slogan was “A new way” – a curious irony given the party had been in government for the six previous years.

Before Rudd became prime minister for the second time, he admitted there were difficulties with his previous administration.

“All of us make mistakes and every government’s made mistakes – including the one I led as well”, Rudd said.

The ALP even hired staffers from the Obama presidential campaign in their bid to beat the conservative coalition led by Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott.

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Rudd was also savvy in his use of social media to target the youth vote, according to Politifact’s Fray.

“Part of the pitch Rudd was making was very much to the youth vote, talking to people through social media,” he told Al Jazeera.

Rudd regularly tweeted about his pet cat and dog, and posted family photographs with his granddaughter. He was criticised for “over-sharing” when he posting a picture – of a bloody tissue on his face after he had cut himself shaving – to his 70,000 Instagram followers.

“He understands the power of social [media], in that you can create multiple narratives about yourself, and if you do it smartly, all coalesce around the one persona. The danger of social is that you end up looking like a parody of yourself,” said Fray.

Place in history

Rudd has made no indication he would quit politics entirely now he has been relegated to the opposition benches.

“If he [had won], that would have a massive effect on how history will see him,” said Professor Wanna. “History would see him as a wronged warrior who fought back against all odds and became prime minister again…

“[However,] he will probably be regarded as someone who did more damage to the Labor party than anyone else in the last century.”

Follow Geraldine Nordfeldt on Twitter: @GeraldineNord

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