Kevin Rudd tried to convince the Labor Party to take him back last week — but the answer was a loud and resounding "no". Julia Gillard promised her colleagues and voters that it was time to move forward and get on with the business of government. As we all know, Gillard was left with the party and Rudd was relegated to the backbench. Why were we all so engrossed by this very messy, public breakup? Is it because the dysfunctional ways in which the ALP manages its relationships reminds us of dynamics in our own lives?
Watching the recently released video of Rudd swearing behing the scenes, you can see all the hallmarks of rage; the lack of control, the cynicism, the sense of defeat before the game has even started and the incredible hopelessness.
In stark contrast, one of the main criticisms of Gillard has been her lack of emotional expression, whether it be attacks on her humanity by Mark Latham or commentary about her lack of authenticity and conviction.
Her determined restriction of public expression of personally focused emotion is a terrible foil to Rudd’s temper tantrums. Both styles are harmful in their own way and grip us as all polarities do — by engaging us in our own unresolved conflicts. We want to know how to resolve the splits in our own lives, and we’re fascinated when they’re played out for us by others.
Gillard’s litany of "moving forward" is very much a version of "build a bridge"; a response that refuses to acknowledge the pain and the origin of past wrongs. Rudd’s continual focus on the past risks leaving us stuck there forever. Neither approach positions us to deal with the present.
Most of us are familiar with this tension between honouring past hurts and letting them go. We have all been rejected and we have all rejected others. We’ve moved on too soon without explanation and we’ve stayed too long in resentment over our rejection.
The contrast magnetically draws our attention here. The family drama of quiet mum and explosive dad is one that so many of us are familiar with. We can’t help but watch with fascination as the drama of their separation and divorce unfolds.
Like all family dramas, we’re playing our parts, and ones that if we look closely at them, are probably roles we’ve played for most of our lives.
In this so-called bitter divorce, there are the children calling for their parents to sort their own stuff and to leave us out of it. The kids are taking sides — Dad’s alright, he’s just got a bit of temper, at least he knows how to drive — sure that there’s a good guy in all this if we can just get our facts straight.
Clearly we have witnessed a public political conflict where personal drama was placed ahead of national interest. Like the inability of many parents to put their children’s needs ahead of their own desires for restitution after separation, this leadership challenge has had a personal flavour that has had very little to do with policy and governance and everything to do with individual character assassination and the rallying of oppositional allies.
This conflict interests us intensely because we are forever interested in our own relationship challenges, resentments and rejections and because the patterning is so familiar to us.
Kevin Rudd has repeatedly been characterised as rejected in this conflict. He has been painted as flawed and defective, psychologically and characterologically unfit to govern. He is the loser who wasn’t able to keep his cool, unable to sit tight and wait for an appropriate window or bow out gracefully. Instead, he keeps coming back and risking further humiliation. And he lets us see his rage.
And rage is primarily a response to rejection. It’s an attempt to reverse the pain of the rejection by externalising the terrible shame of dismissal. We lay at least some of the blame outside ourselves and attempt to question the reliability of our accusers.
This is also part of the car accident attraction of this challenge. How does he keep fronting up for more we wonder? We look on in admiration or disdain, depending on our own personal history and tolerance for rejection, and we can’t seem to look away. This is a primal drama and if our rejections in the past have been painful and remain unresolved, somewhere we hope for resolution here. We really do hope for change.
But we also understand instinctively I think that rage is not so easily transformed, that people don’t change profoundly without retreat, some kind of solitude or active reflection. Rudd’s assertion that he had changed was met with mistrust because on some level all of us understand that it is impossible to transform loss without accepting the situation as it is.
So as we’re siding with mum or with dad, arguing their positions as if they can possibly be independent one from the other, as if there can possibly be a real goodie and a real baddie in a relationship that is pitched circumstantially into conflict by a system that can only support one at a time, we could do with some reflection on our own need to either focus obsessively on rejection or to deny it completely.
There has been so little honesty in this political break up. So little real discussion about the needs of the country and so much focus on the interpersonal drama. Where is the real Julia we ask? The calm front leaves us questioning the integrity of the prime minister as much as the repressed stack blowing of her predecessor leaves us wondering about his.
If we’re honest with ourselves, so few of us have the skills or have practiced either rejecting or being rejected with integrity. We hide our intentions or we hide our pain. We act as if we’ve done nothing wrong, this is business as usual or we pretend we’re just coming back around to finish something we left undone.
We will continue to be interested because of course it’s not over. Nothing is over that hasn’t been openly acknowledged. Like a bitter divorce, the letting go may not even have begun to happen. For Rudd this is an ambiguous loss. His chances are not dead, just frozen. To really move on requires grief. It remains to be seen whether he is up to the task.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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