THE ASSASSINATED PM
Kevin Rudd believed he was doing a first-rate job as Prime Minister and planned on serving at least another term. His deputy, however, had other ideas
I woke up that morning [June 23, 2010] knowing the government had its challenges, but we’d had our challenges for a long time. We’d been ahead in 86 of the previous 87 opinion polls. And I was ready to head off to the G20 summit in Ottawa. So, for me, it was a normal day.
I’d heard rumours after Question Time that Julia Gillard had gone off to consult the faceless men of the factions. At 7pm, one of my staff told me that the ABC had just reported Gillard was about to unleash the dogs of war. She arrived in my office and announced it was on. So there was no warning.
The thing was, in February of that year, I’d taken her to one side and said, “You know, I don’t want to be around forever”. I wanted her to become the first female Prime Minister of Australia through a smooth handover. But she, in the great Shakespearean tradition, saw opportunity arise.
At first, you are in shock and you are numb. And when the numbness fades there is an acute sense of pain that is difficult to describe. There’s also a sense of embarrassment: not many people have to endure their execution so publicly.
After a time the phone stops ringing and you are alone. Then arises the existential question: who am I? If you’ve been in politics for a while you can identify a range of personality types. One of them is the bitterand-twisted type: this person has either never had their talents recognised or they’ve been slighted somehow and dream of their revenge. I regard this as a waste of emotional energy. And so I was deeply conscious of that danger, both psychologically and, in my case, theologically: it actually poisons the soul if you’re not careful.
The response is not to deny anger or the feelings of betrayal. But you also contextualise, which means understanding you’re not Robinson Crusoe. If your purpose for entering the political process is moving the dial on social justice, then there are multiple means by which you can contribute to that end besides being Prime Minister. This becomes the psychological and intellectual framework for navigating these convulsing emotions.
Another part of the process is taking a clear-eyed look at yourself. Because all of us have these two realities of what we think we’re doing versus how we’re perceived. What I discovered was there were folks who, when I asked them a question in cabinet, felt it was a deliberate effort to catch them out on a question of detail, where to me I was simply wanting cabinet to hear why something was being recommended. We’re all individuals with foibles. But I listened carefully to the likes of John Faulkner, who’s observed PMS from Whitlam to the present, and his point was that these critiques of style were a reflection of a precious-petal age.
Becoming Foreign Minister was fundamentally important to moving on, because after the shock and humiliation you either throw yourself back into work or risk disappearing into a vortex of self-reflection. Writing my latest book, too. I did not enjoy writing it – relieving your own death is an interesting experience. But it also gives you a sense of closure.
And yes, I found forgiveness. When I run into these coupmeisters, they kind of slink from the room. My approach –
“AFTER THE SHOCK AND HUMILIATION, YOU THROW YOURSELF BACK INTO WORK”
and it’s not just chutzpah – is to greet and embrace. What I find when engaging people like that is that they can’t comprehend that you wouldn’t want to get square, because that’s how they operate. The aphorism is true: you can forgive and you’ll never forget. The consequence for me is that I will end up, and have ended up, as less trusting. But it’s important not to allow that to consume you.