A Tale of Two Chieftains


I have had very few encounters with Kevin Rudd, but one that stands out occurred in a Sydney bookshop in 2002.

Rudd and I were sharing a platform at a seminar on refugee policy, and I attacked Labor’s me-tooism as much as I attacked the Howard Government’s inhumanity on the issue.

Rudd turned on me with a vengeance, accusing me of being part of the Howard Government, and conveniently forgetting that the only reason he and I were sharing a platform was because I had been disendorsed earlier that year as a Liberal candidate for publicly opposing the Howard Government’s policies towards asylum seekers.

It was the force of Rudd’s put down which surprised me. But as Nicholas Stewart shows in Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Biography (Scribe), this is a man with a ruthlessness of purpose and intensity that, even by the extreme standards of Australian Federal politics, is awesome.

Kevin Rudd is not a warm person, and he is not afraid of hating. Stewart quotes one colleague saying, ‘I’ve known Kevin for a decade now, I suppose, and although I’d say we are friends, I wouldn’t say we are personally close.’ An unusual way to put it — a friend but not really a friend seems to be the size of it.

It is as though Rudd is just so focused on the practice of politics that there is little time for sentiment in his life. When Tasmanian MP Harry Quick fell ill and was rushed to hospital, Rudd told Quick’s staffer he was too busy to visit him but gave him a book on religion to cheer him up which apparently it did.

Another colleague says Rudd can be vicious if you cross him. But that’s what you’d expect of someone so driven that they work incessantly and even make media calls at 3am.

This is not to say that Stewart’s portrait of the putative Prime Minister is altogether negative. It is, in fact, scrupulously fair. Stewart has researched well and if anything, Rudd’s lack of co-operation with the author works to the book’s advantage. To compensate, Stewart has talked to all the relevant players in Rudd’s working life from his period as a young foreign affairs diplomat, through his time as former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss’s head of the Cabinet Office, and then on to his Canberra years.

What sort of Prime Minister would Kevin Rudd make? It’s safe to say that he would be a hands-on leader in the way that Malcolm Fraser was. Fraser too was a workaholic, who micro-managed and drove his staff and Government relentlessly hard. A shy person, Fraser was also remote from many of his colleagues. Ditto Kevin Rudd in some respects, according to Stewart.

Rudd is pragmatic, but highly intelligent. He would be a Prime Minister with a sense of purpose, albeit a cautious one. There is none of the Keating ‘high wire act’ about Rudd, but Stewart does observe that this is a man who demonstrates a ‘willingness to transform and accept change’.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

But if Nicholas Stewart does Australians a service by prising open the door on the life and times of Kevin Rudd, Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington have told us little we didn’t know about the man Rudd has to beat later this year, John Howard.

Despite the publicity Van Onselen and Errington have enjoyed recently because their book, John Howard: The Biography (Melbourrne University Press), spills the beans on the bitterness between Howard and Peter Costello, this is overall a disappointing book. Don’t be fooled by the arrogance of the title this is definitely not ‘The Biography’. A definitive biography of John Howard will require less admiration for this Prime Minister’s political cunning.

According to the authors, ‘Far from being lost in the 1950s, John Howard is a thoroughly modern political leader.’

This of a Prime Minister who has refused to embrace an Australian Head of State, who has intervened recently in the Northern Territory, ostensibly to improve the conditions of Indigenous Australians in a manner that is decidedly paternalistic, and who has mastered 1950s-style scare campaigns about terrorism and asylum seekers.

There is little in this biography that we don’t already know about Howard, and on occasion the book’s interpretation of John Howard’s policy articulation and implementation is just plain wrong.

It is simply not plausible to suggest, as Errington and Van Onselen do, that cultural organisations, with the exception of the ABC, ‘largely escaped the micro-management that so many areas of Government endured during the Howard years’. For example, the Australian Museum’s management and curatorial staff have endured the heavy-handed political censorship of Howard Government board appointees.

What is frustrating about this account of Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister is that it appears to equate political cunning and opportunism with good leadership.

The authors admire Howard’s success in winning back the supporters of Right-wing extremist Pauline Hanson. They appear to endorse his divisive ploy to divide the nation into ‘battlers versus elites’. And there is an assumption that when it comes to Prime Ministerial leadership, what matters most is bread and butter politics, not the more esoteric but fundamentally important politics of values.

Still, it would be unfair to characterise Van Onselen and Errington as hagiographers. They are academics who have researched their topic to within an inch of its life and their judgments on Howard, whilst on the whole sympathetic to their subject, are not uniformly so.

Howard’s claims that he wanted to push economic deregulation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but was blocked by a protectionist Malcolm Fraser are not supported by the evidence, according to Van Onselen and Errington. Nor was Howard’s decision to endorse the mean spirited view of Aboriginal history peddled by former Marxist Keith Windschuttle wise.

But the fundamental weakness of this much vaunted book is that it misjudges the impact that Howard has had on this country. It is asserted that John Howard ‘simply hadn’t made the difference his more ideological supporters hoped he would’.

No doubt those millions of Australians saddled with having to work under the Work Choices laws would beg to differ. And the rest of the world has noticed that over the past decade Australia has become the most uncritical US ally bar none. Then there is the ripping up of the Federal system, with the Howard Government building its own technical colleges system in addition to that of the States, and seeking to impose national education standards. One could go on for pages.

There is an inherent difficulty with writing a biography while the subject is still alive and well and a work in progress. It does not allow for the effluxion of time to enable a more considered and nuanced view. But given these limitations, Nicholas Stewart’s presentation of Kevin Rudd succeeds in providing us with the more dispassionate account of political leadership.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.