Chron­i­cle of a party pick­ing up the pieces

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Richard Fer­gu­son

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

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