Chronicle of a party picking up the pieces
Rudd, Gillard and Beyond By Troy Bramston Penguin Specials, 200pp, $9.99 TROY Bramston, who writes for this newspaper, has become the chief chronicler of the Australian Labor Party, an authority on its bloody past and oracle of its uncertain future.
Rudd, Gillard and Beyond is Bramston’s sixth book on this grand old party and it cements his place as one of our most insightful political historians. The book centres on the Rudd-Gillard wars. Everything is laid bare in horrific fashion: the coups and counter-coups, the backroom chatter, the deadly betrayals. Not to mention the policies, the big, sparkling ideas we half-remember and the botched jobs we’d rather forget.
At the heart of this story are two high and mighty figures: Julia Gillard, the most powerful woman in the history of Australia, and Kevin Rudd, the man who brought down the once-invincible Howard government.
Rudd looms over every page like a shadow and a nemesis. Bramston was one of his great boy-warriors (his speechwriter at a young age) and Rudd gave him his first on-the-record interview after the election last year. In the process, he gets a rare insight into the man who
May 17-18, 2014 captivated a nation and destroyed the ALP from the inside. When asked what his great mistakes were, Rudd nominates the decision to dump the emissions trading scheme, on Gillard’s advice, after it was blocked in the Senate and — wait for it — “to have been such a trusting bastard”.
Think of it: Kevin the trusting lamb. This man loves Labor, but he’s not too keen on his colleagues (except for his “cardinals” Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen). “There are those who want power in Labor, and those who want Labor in power,’’ Rudd says, putting himself in the former camp. His principles and his predominance are, for him, the essence of the Labor cause.
Bramston doesn’t hold back in criticising his old boss, who he describes as a “distracting, and at times, malevolent force” in the context of Gillard’s leadership. He quotes an (unnamed) MP as saying Rudd’s tenure was “like living in Caligula’s Rome”. But ultimately Bramston gives a more complex and balanced portrait of a man we all assume we know.
Why was the Labor caucus so afraid of having an ego and a temper like Rudd’s in charge when Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were no shrinking violets either? When Rudd told Keating he had offended the Labor caucus, the old street-fighter said, “What a precious bunch of poppets they are.” Bramston seems in his understated way to share this view.
Then there is Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister and one of the unluckiest politicians in history. Bramston records his respect for her skills as a “skilled debater, a good negotiator and a shrewd tactician”. He thinks her “iconic status as a trailblazer for women will grow”. He lists her achievements in education as well as her success in foreign policy. And, as Hawke tells him in this book, “No other prime minister had to deal with more difficult circumstances than Julia did.”
However, Bramston doesn’t appear to think this queen of backroom deals was ever ready for prime time. It’s a shame that we miss out on Gillard’s voice. But Bramston tells us in his preface that, “despite repeated requests, Julia Gillard did not consent to an interview”.
The only time we hear Gillard’s direct words are in a communication to Rudd. In this personal email to the then PM, she warns: “Our primary (vote) is in the mid-30s, we can’t win an election with a primary like that.”
Bramston reveals that Gillard — despite her claims to the contrary — was sounding out support for a leadership challenge weeks before Rudd finally fell.
Once in the top job, Bramston writes, Gillard “lacks authenticity” and is not loved by a public angry about the sudden assassination of a firstterm leader and confused over who “the Real Julia” is. Gillard also fails to own her successes: her education reforms take David Gonski’s name, she leaves Bill Shorten to lead on disabili- ty reform. She struggles to lay claim to her prime ministerial decisions (whether sins or successes), leaving her vulnerable to Rudd. Bramston calls it “a mixed legacy”, but Gillard remains such a mystery in this book that the reader is left unsure of what legacy she leaves.
Bramston — intrepid political historian though he is — is not content simply to dwell on the past and takes up the frequently asked question of where Labor goes from here. He turns to his connections in the ALP for answers. There’s the man left to pick up the pieces, Shorten, who is partial to the sort of reforms Bramston and many others have floated, such as primary elections for Labor candidates and broadening the base beyond the unions.
But it’s Labor’s holy trinity of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating who provide the most sobering advice on the road ahead. Hawke — who stands up for Gillard but “declines to reflect on Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership” — says consultation within the party and the cabinet is the key. Keating has the best lines as always. Today’s class of Labor politicians lacks experience and conviction, he says. “Policies aren’t pretty boxes you pick up in a gift shop; they come from the very innards of politics.”
And Whitlam, in what may well be his last public reflection, tells the author the source of success is “two words: contemporary relevance”.
Bramston acknowledges that ALP autopsy