Two biographies don’t paint the full picture, writes Hedley Thomas Kevin Rudd: The Biography By Robert Macklin Penguin, 253pp, $ 32.95 Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography By Nicholas Stuart Scribe, 280pp, $ 32.95
FOR political junkies and curious voters striving to understand the character of Australia’s alternative prime minister, there are now two paperback biographies on Kevin Michael Rudd. Robert Macklin, author of Kevin Rudd: The Biography, fell in love with his subject. Their courtship was fast, co- operative and ends happily. Rudd should be delighted with the result. Nicholas Stuart, author of Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, was rudely jilted. There is less bliss but more analysis and healthy cynicism in Stuart’s book.
Macklin produced his work after being granted access to Rudd, his siblings, wife, friends and Labor allies. All may truly believe Rudd is the bee’s knees. If they don’t believe it, they gushed it, anyway.
It is a slim tome and nicely written. Canberrabased Macklin spent four months researching and putting it together, a feat he admits ‘‘ requires not just total concentration on the job at hand but a great deal of co- operation from all sides’’. A former Queenslander, Macklin is at his best in depicting the young Rudd and his bucolic childhood. A sensitive and earnest child who adored his parents, Margaret and Bert, the boy Rudd and his family are immensely likable in these chapters.
Macklin describes a challenging 1967 road trip in the HR Holden and caravan during the family ‘‘ holiday of a lifetime, Nambour to Melbourne or bust’’ to watch older brother Malcolm graduate from the army signals school in Victoria. Malcolm Rudd must have been relieved to see his flesh and blood family. He had been bastardised by sadistic cretins with whom he trained on the Mornington Peninsula.
The recollections of Kevin Rudd’s sister, Loree, are particularly moving. Young Kevin was secure and held close in a tight- knit family. As a battling sharefarmer, Bert would never have much in the way of assets, but he worked harder than most to ensure his four children would not go without a feed, even if it were only his rough old stew.
Margaret, for whom religion mattered a great deal, was generous with her love, particularly with Kevin, the youngest. He hopes he has her traits, particularly ‘‘ forgettery’’: an ability to forgive and move on after being slighted. Mark Latham’s mocking description in his Diaries of Rudd’s distress when his mother died a few years ago feels even more odious when the closeness of their bond is understood.
The Rudd clan was shattered on February 11, 1969. Kevin was 11 when Bert died in hospital from injuries sustained when he drove his car off the Bruce Highway while returning to the farm late at night from a Christmas celebration some weeks earlier. Malcolm told Kevin after school one afternoon that his father was dead.
‘‘ I was probably rather abrupt,’’ Malcolm says. Guilt over the loss weighed most heavily on Kevin’s other brother, Greg, who secretly blamed himself. Before going to Brisbane for the celebration, Bert had asked Greg if he would milk the cows early the next morning. Greg expressed reluctance — it was a big job and he would have been alone — forcing his dad to drive back late at night, tired and affected by alcohol. He fell asleep at the wheel.
Macklin traces Rudd’s school and university years, his solid marriage to Therese Rein, their single- minded determination to excel and to understand China, his rise as a diplomat in Sweden, then in Beijing, and the arrival of three children. Alexander Downer, it seems, has every reason to be wary of Rudd. The Foreign Affairs Minister was a lightweight by comparison when both served as diplomats.
But this is, after all, the biography Rudd would be able to cheerfully endorse and hand out with the how- to- vote packs. Not surprisingly, given the obvious bias of most of the people interviewed by Macklin, this book contains scarcely a paragraph of dissent. The omissions leave a hole
in story’s credibility. Nobody can be as seemingly perfect and preternaturally destined for high office. It will be condemned by political rivals as hagiography.
Macklin nails his colours to the mast at the end. Declaring Rudd ‘‘ the man for our time’’, he adds: His election to the prime ministership of our country is vital to meet the extraordinary challenges of global warming and a swiftly changing international order, and to restore the sense of fair play and self- esteem at home that has been all but lost beneath the political amorality and personal mendacity of the Howard stewardship.’’
Macklin may be right. But such extravagant cheerleading is deeply disconcerting at the end of a biography promoted as ‘‘ full of insights’’. The spruiking undermines the force of the preceding 70,000- odd words.
Stuart, also based in Canberra, had a more difficult assignment. He writes that when doing the hard slog of researching, a senior Labor figure ( helpful hint: she has hazel eyes) warned:
The problem with political biographies is that you can’t get the whole story. I can’t be frank with you. Kevin won’t be frank with you.’’
Hazel Eyes wasn’t joshing. Another extremely frustrating feature of Stuart’s book is the absence of names. Every Tom, Dick and Harriet gets a quote, but we never know their real identity even when they are obsequious with praise. Anonymous quotes wear thin when stretched across the whole canvas.
One strongly suspects the refusal of Rudd’s team to deal with Stuart despite his repeated pleas for input, until it was far too late, has backfired. Rudd’s no- speak strategy permitted Stuart to see an unattractive side of his subject as a control freak and almost certainly made the author more sceptical.
Writes Stuart: In an attempt to find out more about this period of his life, I contacted a number of people to ask them to describe the young man. Rudd asked them not to speak to me.’’
As Stuart is poking around Queensland trying
‘‘ to talk to people about the Rudd- Wayne Goss years, he is told by a Rudd colleague: Listen, mate, you’re not going to get very much because everyone’s been [ leant] on pretty heavily. The Rudd machine has gone to work.’’
There are people willing to share first- hand knowledge of the good, bad and ugly features of Rudd’s legacy, and both authors should have found them. But Rudd has solid form for trying to censor or kill forensic analysis of his life, times and occasional foibles, and he was spectacularly outed for it earlier this year by News Limited editors and Fairfax’s veteran political commentator Alan Ramsey.
Neither book explores ethical issues thrown up by the Work Directions business, founded and led by Rudd’s adoring wife Rein. Her hard work and canny management have made Rudd one of Australia’s richest parliamentarians, but it was always going to end in tears and charges of rank hypocrisy. Both authors fail to examine Rudd’s political apprenticeship as chief head- kicker in the Goss government immediately before his bid to win a federal seat, although Stuart halfheartedly goes there by drawing Queensland academic Scott Prasser on what the then Labor premier Goss and his Mr Fixit, Rudd, achieved in the 1990s.
Prasser: ‘‘ Rudd was the de facto power behind the throne. He was the key man. Executive government control, secrecy and manipulation of appointment processes remained embedded during this time.’’
This devastating indictment should have provoked more rigorous analysis about whether it is a guide to his style should he become PM.
‘‘ Hedley Thomas is a Brisbane- based senior journalist for The Australian and the author of Sick to Death.
Young man to watch: Left, Kevin Rudd as a boy on a family trip to Sydney; Rudd on his wedding day with his mother, Margaret, and wife, Therese Rein