Australian politics, society & culture

Kevin Rudd’s unrelenting campaign to regain power

The Saboteur

Still ready to serve: Rudd’s backers refuse to give up agitating for his return © Andrew Taylor/Fairfax Syndication

Erik Jensen

Long read7000 words
 

When I say to my parliamentary colleagues and to the people at large across Australia that I would not challenge for the Labor leadership – I believe in honouring my word. Others treat such commitments lightly. I do not. I’ve been very plain about that for a long period of time.

– Kevin Rudd on the day of the Claytons challenge, 21 March 2013

Kevin Rudd began his second campaign for the leadership of the Labor Party by not standing. Just after 10 pm on 23 June 2010, on the so-called night of the long knives, he emerged from crisis meetings to announce that his deputy, Julia Gillard, had challenged him to a ballot. In his last hours as prime minister, Rudd learnt her numbers would crush him. Key unions had withdrawn their support. Powerbrokers inside the party had turned on him. Caucus members, it soon became clear, had never liked him. A psychopath, one backbencher called him. A narcissist, others said. He was a micro-manager and his office, by all accounts, was dysfunctional. “This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party,” a powerbroker told ABC TV’s Chris Uhlmann. “Now that his only faction – Newspoll – has deserted him, he is gone.”

But popular opinion had not deserted Kevin Rudd. Although he’d experienced a dip in the polls, his electoral honeymoon had been inordinately long and sweet. The avoidance of an actual ballot ensured that criticism of him would remain anecdotal. Rather than Australians hearing that four-fifths of his caucus colleagues had mutinied for the sake of good government, the story went that Rudd had been slain by four “faceless men”. The public did not take kindly to the removal of an elected prime minister. They saw that as their job.

Gillard shortly called an election to win legitimacy as leader, but her campaign was hobbled by leaks. Three weeks after Rudd lost the leadership, Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes questioned Gillard over a supposed “deal” with Rudd. The account was remarkably detailed. Oakes asked whether on the night of his ousting Rudd had offered to stand aside if the polls did not improve. “Is it also true that you agreed that this offer was sensible and responsible?” Oakes asked. “Is it true that there was then a brief break during which Mr Rudd went outside and briefed a couple of colleagues on what he thought was a deal while you contacted your backers, and that when the meeting resumed you said you’d changed your mind? You’d been informed he didn’t have the numbers in caucus and you were going to challenge anyway?”

The insinuation was obvious: Gillard’s ascension was not just ruthless, it was dishonest. She told Oakes the conversation had been confidential, but there was little doubt where the story had come from. Thanks to former ALP leader Mark Latham’s pugnacious 2005 memoir, Rudd’s leaking – particularly to Oakes – was already infamous. Latham outlines in The Latham Diaries how he suspected Rudd of being the source of numerous damaging leaks before and after the 2004 federal election – “his pompous language is a give-away” – and details a curious trap he set by feeding Rudd false information. The information, concerning nonexistent focus groups, was prominently reported in Oakes’ Bulletin column the next week.

Ten days into the 2010 election campaign, on 27 July, Oakes fronted Nine’s evening news with a report that, while deputy leader, Gillard had opposed increases to paid parental leave. He also reported her questioning an increase to the aged pension, allegedly saying “elderly voters did not support Labor”. The story, which also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, written by another long-time Rudd confidant, Peter Hartcher, cruelled Labor’s vote in marginal electorates.

An internal review of the campaign, conducted by party elders John Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, implied either Rudd or his backers were responsible for the leaks. They wrote: “The review committee is unanimous … that these events were designed to cause damage to Labor’s election chances and those involved should be condemned by the party.”


The sabotage of the 2010 campaign helped Tony Abbott very nearly win government. As it was, Labor lost its majority and Gillard was forced into a precarious coalition with regional independents and urban Greens. This made Rudd’s revenge all the sweeter. Whereas he might have been punished for his low blows during the campaign had Labor either won or lost outright, now he was able to demand the foreign ministry. Gillard was in no position to risk his resignation and a by-election, but the gig ensured Rudd the high profile of a statesman abroad. If Gillard thought the appointment might be perceived as generous on her part, she was mistaken. As his local paper, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, put it: “Kevin Rudd wants everyone – particularly his Labor colleagues – to know that he is a humbled man who has shaken off any hurt and anger from the humiliation of being ousted as prime minister by his party.”

Gillard’s first months as prime minister after the election proved shaky. She was wooden in public and looked unsure overseas. Abbott had her number; Rudd was looking better by the week. He waded through the Brisbane floods, scolded Libya and flirted with Hillary Clinton. Every fortnight, there was a poll to remind the parliamentary party that the public still carried a torch for Rudd. Never mind that it was largely Coalition voters who professed to prefer him as PM over Gillard – the Canberra press gallery simply did not believe Gillard could keep Rudd at bay, any more than it believed she could keep her ruling coalition together, riven as it became over ensuing months by the scandals of men behaving badly: Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper and an ex-boyfriend at the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU).

Rudd and his supporters in the party made the most of Gillard’s haplessness, backgrounding journalists to keep the flame alive in the face of ongoing positive economic news, always exaggerating his support in caucus.

Gillard faced almost monthly obituaries in newspapers. In November 2010, just three months after the election, columnist and blogger Andrew Bolt wrote: “I’d tentatively conclude that Gillard is right on the cusp. One more bad poll and the drums will really start beating.” He was right. Beating them loudest were the journalists and commentators closest to Rudd, most notably Peter Hartcher and Phillip Adams, as well as more predictable and less reputable spruikers: Graham Richardson, Labor’s former numbers man; various shock-jocks; and a knot of journalists at the Australian. There would be no let-up.

Rudd’s supporters in caucus, led by ministers Kim Carr, Joel Fitzgibbon and Robert McClelland, used their contacts in the media to agitate for a challenge. Called out for his disloyalty by Simon Crean, a former party leader himself, Rudd resigned as foreign minister to contest the leadership. “The truth is the Australian people regard this whole affair as little better than a soap opera,” Rudd said during a 2 am press conference at a Washington DC hotel, timed for the evening news back home. “And they are right, and under current circumstances, I won’t be part of it.”

Having bayed for the contest, the press gallery now talked it up. The numbers, apparently, were too close to call. Yet Rudd’s chief backer in public wasn’t even a colleague: it was the Labor strategist Bruce Hawker. In the attendant ruckus, ministers were finally saying what they really thought. Gillard accused Rudd of “a long-running destabilisation campaign”. Stephen Conroy said: “This has gone on since before and during the last election. It has to stop. There has to be an acceptance from Mr Rudd when he loses the ballot that he will desist from this campaign, desist from this destabilisation.” Brendan O’Connor described as “unbelievable” the 2010 campaign leaks: “That is unprecedented in Labor’s history, that we would have leaks coming out of cabinet to target the then prime minister during an election campaign, to aid and abet Tony Abbott to win the 2010 election. That destabilisation, that treachery has gone on now for varying degrees for the last 18 months.”

Wayne Swan summed up cabinet feeling in a statement: “For the sake of the labour movement, the government and the Australians which it represents, we have refrained from criticism to date. However, for too long, Kevin Rudd has been putting his own self-interest ahead of the interests of the broader labour movement and the country as a whole, and that needs to stop.”

On 27 February 2012, the party rejected Rudd 71–31. The message was emphatic: caucus loathed Rudd for what he had done and was doing to the party. But there were some in the press who still couldn’t let go of Rudd. As Peter Hartcher wrote: “Labor has overwhelmingly endorsed the candidate of the unions and the party machine over the candidate of the people.”


When Rudd seized the leadership from Kim Beazley in December 2006, already the public liked him a lot more than his party did. (Back in Queensland, as premier Wayne Goss’s right-hand man, his nickname had been Dr Death.) Voters bought his faux folksiness. He branded himself as an “economic conservative” and famously told journalist Christine Jackman he was planning to mess with John Howard’s mind, which he duly did by putting Maxine McKew up against him in the seat of Bennelong. It was a masterstroke. Rudd didn’t just defeat John Howard, he eradicated him, then joked of marking his victory with an Iced VoVo and a strong cup of tea. There was plenty of pomp and celebration to come – the overdue apology to the Stolen Generations, the 2020 summit, the overseas jaunts.

But ever so slowly, Rudd’s razzle and dazzle dimmed. His attempts at the common touch were starting to grate – the “fair shake of the sauce bottle”, the “gotta zip” – especially in juxtaposition with his fluency in both wonk-speak – his “detailed programmatic specificity” – and coarse language. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, his poll- and focus group-driven decision making, his distaste for teamwork and his “fuck”-filled tirades put offside most of his ministerial colleagues and office staff. One after another they came to dislike him intensely: Nicola Roxon, Jenny Macklin, Penny Wong, Kate Ellis, Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Peter Garrett, Simon Crean, Bill Shorten and even, finally, Julia Gillard.

After his attempted comeback in 2012, Rudd fell briefly silent. He promised not to challenge again, which was widely read as a pledge that he would return only if asked. His backers wasted no time lobbying journalists to regain momentum. By April 2012, as Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson fell into disrepute, caucus numbers were again being bandied about – inflated, untestable. Rudd’s backers briefed journalists that Gillard could be gone by the end of June. Michelle Grattan wrote in the Age: “Julia Gillard should consider falling on her sword for the good of the Labor Party, because she can no longer present an even slightly credible face at the election.” Dennis Shanahan, the Australian’s chief Newspoll correspondent, wrote: “Julia Gillard’s leadership of the Labor Party is now in name only. It is ebbing away as her staunchest supporters abandon her in despair.”

Gillard’s circle suspected Rudd of timing media opportunities to coincide with Newspoll’s fortnightly phone surveys. The polls were, after all, his only faction. As the 7–10 June Newspoll was being taken, three junior Rudd supporters – Mark Bishop, Mark Furner and Ursula Stephens – said reinstalling Rudd would improve their chances of re-election. “If there was a Rudd-led Labor government, the ALP in Western Australia would elect two senators,” Bishop said. “Senators around Australia and marginal-seat holders are being deliberately sacrificed for no cogent reason.”

The day before the next polling period, Robert McClelland – now on the backbench, having supported Rudd in February – made a veiled but deliberate reference to Gillard’s purported involvement in the 17-year-old AWU affair. Andrew Bolt did not miss it. “McClelland has fired a warning shot – a cannon, really – over Gillard’s bows,” he wrote the same day. “She should be seriously worried.”

In the middle of the next polling period, an interview with Rudd’s wife, Thérèse Rein, appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, headlined: “Rein: We’re still ready to serve”. Now Rudd’s tacticians were predicting they’d have the numbers to roll Gillard in August.

“Whatever the claims of the Rudd camp,” Laura Tingle reported in the Australian Financial Review, “supporters of the prime minister see signs everywhere of Rudd, the phantom menace.” Gillard’s poll ratings stayed down. Newspoll was in the field again on 20 July 2012. Rudd’s backers were now in overdrive, keen to bring their work to a head. At the week’s beginning, his supporters were in the press gallery corridors, spruiking MP Joel Fitzgibbon’s upcoming appearance on Q&A. “It might come as a shock to everyone here that populism matters in politics,” a smiling Fitzgibbon said on TV that night. “No matter what political party you’re talking about, if leaders remain unpopular long enough, they’ll inevitably stop leading the party.”

Supposition spread that numerous backbenchers, fearful of losing their seats, had swung behind Rudd. He was rumoured to be in lengthy conversations with powerbrokers Bill Shorten and the AWU’s Paul Howes.

Labor’s primary vote dropped three percentage points that fortnight. The Australian’s Paul Kelly wrote that “public destabilisation of Julia Gillard’s leadership is institutionalised”. He concluded: “With Gillard’s primary vote at 28%, Labor must choose between oblivion and making Rudd’s return a viable project.” But August passed, too. The Australian’s obdurate reporting of Gillard’s past links to corrupt AWU officials resumed, with Fairfax and the ABC now joining the shadow-chasing. Then, on 9 October, Gillard delivered her misogyny speech. The polls swung back her way, if only a little.

Rudd stepped up his campaign. Stories were planted about how Gillard’s compromise on his planned mining tax had cost the nation billions of dollars. In a single week in November, Rudd, a backbencher, spoke to Sky News’s Agenda program from Shanghai; appeared as a panellist on Channel Ten’s primetime current-affairs program, The Project; talked to Radio National about China and to Channel Nine about the US election; swanned through the Melbourne Cup; and began a series of four conversations with Neil Mitchell on 3AW, likened by some to the broadcasts Robert Menzies had used to reconnect with voters after losing his party’s leadership. The AWU affair was again running at fever pitch and journalists were openly anticipating the “killing season”: the weeks just before the Christmas break, when political leaders are often removed. Meanwhile Rudd danced to the global hit ‘Gangnam Style’ on morning TV.

Over summer, Rudd returned to his old weekly spot on Sunrise, the breakfast program credited in part for his ascent to the leadership the first time around. Gillard’s circle was showing the strain. In late January 2013 she announced an election date eight months in advance, a futile attempt to ward off a challenge as much as to catch Tony Abbott off-guard. Then she enraged the Murdoch press by proposing media reforms utterly incompatible with the way its chairman does business in this country.


As parliament returned to Canberra on 5 February, Rudd’s supporters decided it was time to move. A story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald saying he had as many as 45 votes in caucus – not enough to win, but enough to plausibly challenge. Rudd was in his element now. In response to questions about the leadership, he suggested reporters take cold showers, then ice baths, then try cryogenic storage. Video footage surfaced of Rudd singing out of time with Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. Several commentators declared Julia Gillard “a dead woman walking”. Rudd’s office circulated more footage, this time of him addressing a St Patrick’s Day function. “On these Ides of March 2013, I will challenge …” he announced, pausing for effect, “… any of the Liberal politicians here this evening to demonstrate that they have any more Irish heritage than I have.”

The press gallery was relishing the drama. The best jobs figures in 13 years were merrily ignored. Peter Hartcher argued the “logical corollary” of the recent Labor losses in the Western Australian election was a drastic change at the party’s highest level. “Federal Labor may be a hopeless case. But it does have one alternative. Its name is Kevin Rudd.”

The following Saturday, 16 March, Hartcher took up Rudd’s cause again. His column described a “clear majority of people who want it to happen”, yet no one was willing to tap Julia Gillard on the shoulder. Hartcher went on:

 

This syndrome has a name. It’s a called the “bystander effect”. Psychologists came up with the idea to explain a 1964 murder in New York. A 28-year-old woman, Kitty Genovese, was raped and murdered outside her apartment building in an attack that went on for half an hour and was witnessed by dozens of passers-by. No one acted to help, no one called the police … The bystander effect is Gillard’s best chance of making it to the budget.

 

Hartcher wasn’t standing by. On Tuesday, 19 March, with three sitting days to go before parliament rose for the autumn break, he declared key ministers on the left and right of the party – Mark Butler and Bob Carr – could no longer be relied on to support Gillard. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age gave over their entire front pages to the story: “Ministers turn on PM”. Carr and Butler denied it, but stories were being planted elsewhere, too. On Thursday, the Murdoch tabloids led with a story about “suppressed” internal Labor polling that showed Rudd’s popularity was “rebounding” at the time of his removal in June 2010. The figures were rubbery, if not irrelevant, but the piece’s breathless first paragraph set the scene: “Julia Gillard faces the most crucial 24 hours of her leadership as it emerged Labor polling taken on the eve of Kevin Rudd’s political assassination revealed a rebound for the overthrown PM.”

Joel Fitzgibbon, the government’s chief whip and destabiliser, had poured fuel on the fire the day before. “It would be silly to tell people watching your program that there’s nothing going on,” he told Fairfax online. “Obviously internally, people are looking at the polls and they’re expressing concern about the future of the government and indeed the party.”


On the Tuesday night, the key plotters met in Chris Bowen’s office. Since the papal conclave a week earlier, they had taken to calling themselves the cardinals. “It’s a bit of a joke,” one of them recounts. “You know, the white smoke and that.” But when Rudd dropped by, he was furious. Four-letter words were sprayed around the room. Yes, the cardinals had set things in motion. Yes, the media was playing along. But where were the numbers?

The cardinals knew the problem, of course: their man was loathed. Under any normal circumstances, a backbencher in danger of losing his seat might be persuaded to back a popular candidate. But this was Kevin Rudd, the man deposed for his autocratic, self-serving ways, who had wrecked their chances of re-election, and had already been overwhelmingly rejected by an angry caucus. There was a lot to forgive.

Yet there were those prepared to anoint a party saboteur as its saviour. On Wednesday, Bowen and Fitzgibbon visited Simon Crean in his office. They claimed they needed just five more votes in caucus to roll Gillard. Crean, who had been sidling up to the Rudd camp for several weeks, named ten people with whom he had influence. In exchange, he wanted the deputy prime minister’s job, ostensibly because he thought it would reassure wavering backbenchers to have a party elder behind Rudd. Fitzgibbon knew Rudd wanted Anthony Albanese as his deputy, but told Crean he could have the job. They arranged a “fail-safe” plan: Crean would send his converts to Fitzgibbon’s office to pledge their votes to Rudd; once these were counted, and the result was certain, Crean would call for a spill.

Bowen and Fitzgibbon met Rudd afterwards. Neither had sought his approval before seeing Crean. As ever, Rudd had been keen to keep himself at arm’s length. They told him they had offered Crean the deputy leadership, and would be voting for him. Rudd still wanted Albanese. Fitzgibbon told Rudd his loyalty to Albanese was secure: Rudd could personally vote for Albanese, then work with Crean after the ballot. His hands would be clean.

By that evening not one of Crean’s numbers had visited Fitzgibbon. Fitzgibbon went to see Crean, only to learn he was in the prime minister’s office. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The cardinals became uneasy. “I thought, ‘Oh fuck,’” one of them says. “What the fuck is he doing?”

Crean was, in fact, telling the prime minister she should allow a vote on the leadership. He felt the damage being done to the party was at risk of being for nought if Rudd now retreated, as it seemed likely he might, only for his backers to again bring their rebellion back into the open weeks or months down the track. Crean was determined it would be now or never. Gillard told him a rumour was circling he had done a deal with Rudd to run on a leadership ticket. He denied it. The next day, Thursday, he was back in Gillard’s office telling her he was going to call for a spill of the leadership positions. “It was a pretty mature and frank conversation,” Crean says. “It certainly wasn’t heated.”

At 9.20 am, after he left Gillard’s office, Crean received a text message from Rudd. Crean hadn’t spoken to Rudd since Tuesday. The message, later forwarded to Laurie Oakes, read: “Gidday, Simon. I’m told you saw the PM last night. If that’s so and if it in any way touches the leadership, and if you are making any public comments, please give me a call beforehand. My position is as before. All the best, Kevin.”

But Crean did not read the message until it was too late. Instead he got a call from Chris Bowen. “We need to go ahead with it,” Crean recalls him saying. “It’s got to be done while we’re here – today.” Crean asked Bowen to clarify the situation. “I said to him, ‘Chris, are you certain all the people counting in your team are unanimous in the view that we should proceed?’ He said, ‘Yes.’”

Crean still believed that once backbenchers learnt he was part of the leadership team, they might overlook the former prime minister’s excesses. “There’s the stampede effect,” Crean says. “People who didn’t support or trust Rudd, confronted with the choice to end the logjam, would do so.”

By 10.30 am, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, one of the Gillard government’s signature pieces of legislation, had passed both houses of parliament. Half an hour later, Gillard apologised to the hundreds of thousands of Australians whose childhoods were fractured by forced adoption, and the parents whose lives were similarly affected. “My fellow Australians,” she said, “no collection of words alone can undo all this damage.”

That morning a number of Gillard supporters went to see Crean. “They’d been dispatched to try to dissuade me.” Not once was he visited by anyone from Rudd’s camp. Anthony Albanese was in the chamber withdrawing the government’s media reforms when Crean commenced a press conference. His eyes were narrowed and he didn’t look anywhere in particular. Each sentence ended in a weighted pause. With a Harmony Day ribbon pinned to his lapel, Crean called on the prime minister to declare the leadership open. Rudd must run, Crean said: he could no longer feign reluctance and return only if drafted. “This is an issue that has to be resolved,” Crean said. “This is not personal. This is about the party, its future and the future of the country.”

At 2 pm, as question time began, the prime minister announced that Albanese would be answering questions in Crean’s portfolios. A special caucus meeting to hold a leadership ballot was called for 4.30 pm.

After question time, four of the cardinals met in Rudd’s office: Joel Fitzgibbon, Chris Bowen, Richard Marles and Alan Griffin. They told him he did not have the numbers. Rudd had spoken earlier to Albanese and Kim Carr, heads of the hard and soft Left factions. Martin Ferguson had also been called. “I asked each of them for their views,” Rudd said later. “Each of them said to me, ‘Kevin, I believe you should not run because it would divide the party.’”

At 4.15 pm, Rudd telephoned Crean to tell him he would not run. “I said, ‘Kevin, you have to run,’” Crean recalls. “He said, ‘I’m not.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the wrong call.’” In desperation, Crean sought out Bowen. “I said to Chris Bowen, ‘Him not running was never part of the discussions we had.’”

It took caucus less than 15 minutes to confirm Gillard as leader and Wayne Swan as her deputy. Party spokesman Chris Hayes emerged from the room to announce they had been re-elected unanimously and unopposed. “This is something most people are happy has been put beyond doubt.”


The next morning, Chris Bowen joined Simon Crean on the backbench. “I think Kevin Rudd was a good prime minister and I think the Labor Party could have done well to return him to the leadership,” Bowen said. “The Labor Party took a different view, hence my [resignation] announcement today.”

Martin Ferguson and Kim Carr also resigned as ministers. A handful of whips and a parliamentary secretary followed: Joel Fitzgibbon, Ed Husic, Janelle Saffin and Richard Marles. Once-kind journalists were suddenly hostile. “Rudd kept his promise,” wrote Hartcher, “but he has destroyed his credibility as a leadership candidate … It was a moment of gut-wrenching disappointment for his supporters and gleefully comical anti-climax for his detractors.” Laurie Oakes was even more bruised: “He has no political future, even in Opposition. His next step should be to announce that he will not contest his seat of Griffith in the September 14 poll.”

But the backbench is a risky place to leave plotters. Rudd’s backers now have even more time on their hands, as much as Rudd himself. In the days after the abortive coup they showed themselves to be recklessly disenchanted, criticising both the government’s policy and direction. No more class-war rhetoric, Crean, Ferguson and even Kim Carr demanded of the prime minister and her treasurer, ridiculous as this sounded coming from former union and Left faction heavies. They criticised changes to the single parent pension and the proposed reforms to superannuation, designed to tax the wealthy. Fitzgibbon’s voice was again the loudest: “In Sydney’s west you can be on a quarter of a million dollars family income a year and you’re still struggling.”

Yet the real plan, they say, is to sit back and let Newspoll do its work. Their new destabilisation will be no destabilisation, so that Gillard’s low ratings can’t be blamed on them. “She needs to wear every bad poll,” says one of the cardinals. “It’s a waiting game. People like me have deliberately gone to ground. Being quiet is the hardest thing I’ve had to do.”

Although the press gallery wrote off Rudd for good in the wake of the uncontested challenge, and the country’s economic indicators could hardly be better, leadership speculation will be back on the agenda when Murdoch’s editors want it to be – that is, when their pollsters resume asking the question: who is your preferred choice for PM, Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard? As long as Rudd remains statistically more competitive an option to take on Tony Abbott, the cardinals think they have a chance. Not that they think Rudd can win the next election – just that he might lose it less badly. And not that they are fond of him, either. It is just that they have no one else. “It could still be a poisoned chalice,” one backer concedes. “He’s Kevin Rudd, not Jesus Christ.”

Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is a former reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald and the 2010 Young Print Journalist of the Year.

More by Erik Jensen @ErikOJensen