March 2019

Arts & Letters

Rats, heroes and Kevin Rudd’s ‘The PM Years’

By Robert Manne

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, 2010. © Alan Porritt / AAP Images

This memoir answers some questions about his deposal and return but raises others

When Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam on November 11, 1975, many argued that a dangerous precedent had been set. They were wrong. Since then, no Senate has brought down a government by withholding supply. When Kevin Rudd was forced from the prime ministership following a party rebellion on June 23,2010, few predicted future political instability. In the past decade, four prime ministers – Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – have been removed not by the electorate but by their party. Rudd’s removal appears to have unsettled the Australian polity. While a small library has been written on every aspect of November 11, there are only the slimmest pickings about June 23, and there is effectively only one version of what happened on that day and why.

According to the standard version, by June 23, 2010 disaffection with Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership was widespread in the federal parliamentary caucus and the national secretariat. In April 2010, Rudd had capitulated on climate change, not long after he had described it as the great moral challenge of our generation. In May, he had infuriated the country’s most powerful corporations with a clumsily drafted and presented radical mining tax proposal. By now, both public opinion polls and internal party research showed that Rudd was leading Labor towards almost inevitable electoral defeat later that year.

The standard history maintains that before June 23 the deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, had been impeccably loyal to Kevin Rudd, even though increasingly concerned about the chaotic manner of his government, the very many stories of his rudeness to colleagues and public servants, and what she believed was his psychological collapse following the failed December 2009 Copenhagen climate-change conference, to which Rudd had given his all. On June 23, this version of events continues, Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey published an article in The Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that Rudd’s chief of staff, Alister Jordan, had been approaching caucus members, checking on Gillard’s loyalty. This was for her too much to bear. Gillard suddenly announced her challenge. The following morning, caucus assembled. Gillard was elected as leader of the party, and thus as prime minister, unopposed. The anti-Rudd rebellion had been unorganised and leaderless, a case of what has been called in other similar circumstances “spontaneous political combustion”.

For the next three years, so the standard story continues, both while he was foreign minister and then when he returned to the backbench following a failed prime ministerial challenge in February 2012, Rudd had surreptitiously sabotaged Julia Gillard’s government. This was one of the principal reasons for its unpopularity. In June 2013, Rudd finally mounted an inevitable and successful challenge to Gillard. He then assumed a thankless task, and duly lost the election later that year. Because of a series of leaks to political journalist Laurie Oakes for which Rudd was assumed to be responsible and that almost cost Labor the 2010 election, and because of his relentless undermining of the Gillard government, Rudd now took residence in the pantheon of Labor Rats. He was anyhow never really “one of us”. Here the orthodox interpretation ends.

In October last year, Kevin Rudd published The PM Years (Macmillan; $44.99), the second volume of his memoir. It weighs in at 600 tightly packed pages, or almost 300,000 words. In the introduction, Rudd strikes an almost plaintive note. The chief authors of the orthodox interpretation have, he writes,

sought to establish a particular political narrative about the coup that exonerates the participants of any blame. To some extent they may have succeeded, not least because I have remained silent for so long. But with this volume, the silence ends. Each of us, even former prime ministers, are entitled to a formal right of reply.

Four months after publication, the silence has not really ended. As I write, so far as I am aware not even one article has been published that outlines Rudd’s argument or subjects it to critical scrutiny.

I am not writing because I agree with Rudd’s interpretation of “the coup” – a word he insists upon. On several matters, I do not. Nor am I writing as the contemporary political historian best qualified for the task. The key participants in these events and the authors of the orthodox interpretation – Barrie Cassidy of The Party Thieves, Kerry-Anne Walsh of The Stalking of Julia Gillard and in particular Paul Kelly of Triumph and Demise – are better qualified. I am writing because I believe Rudd has mounted a formidable argument that ought to be answered and not simply ignored. Among left-liberal readers, Julia Gillard’s reputation – “from political assassin to wounded martyr and, eventually, feminist hero”, as Rudd puts it – has risen steadily. Among the same readers, Kevin Rudd’s reputation has steadily collapsed. In evaluating his alternative narrative of the coup of June 23, 2010, all this should not count. Just as being fashionable is not the same as being right, so being unfashionable is not the same as being wrong.

In The PM Years Kevin Rudd claims that for the first two years of their partnership in government, 2008 and 2009, his relations with Julia Gillard were good. There was not even one occasion when there was “an angry word between us”. Rudd was an intellectual who could not, for example, rest until he had come to terms with the meaning of the global financial crisis, something he achieved in the long essay written for this magazine. By contrast, Gillard, whose reading matter was restricted to “Scandinavian murder mysteries”, had very limited vision beyond her Labor “instinct”. Rudd praises Gillard’s performance in the education and industrial relations portfolios. He claims, however, that she had little to contribute in other policy areas.

Rudd’s Gillard is ungenerous and hard-hearted, “part lawyer, part dentist”. Nothing I have read about Julia Gillard suggests that this is true. By contrast, Rudd’s Rudd is awash with emotion, frequently in tears. Although Rudd praises Gillard’s 2012 misogyny speech – “That day I felt proud to have her as our prime minister” – he undermines her feminist credentials by claiming that her relations with Labor women were poor. Rudd’s Gillard came to “despise” Penny Wong, a member of the inner-city latte set. Did she? Her relations with Maxine McKew were “poisonous”. Were they? Rudd’s Gillard is above all else ambitious. For this reason, in early February 2010, Rudd offered her a kind of spontaneous Kirribilli agreement. Rudd hoped to win the 2010 and 2013 elections, hand the prime ministership to Gillard some time in his third term, and then campaign for the secretary-­generalship of the United Nations. “Julia looked at me. Silently. Impassively.” Given that Gillard understood the vicissitudes of politics, her incredulity is hardly surprising.

Rudd now interprets her silence differently. With the victory of Tony Abbott over Malcolm Turnbull as Coalition leader in December 2009, one question facing the Rudd government was what to do with its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). During Copenhagen, the leader of the ALP’s NSW Right faction, Senator Mark Arbib, phoned Rudd and suggested that he drop the CPRS for the present. Rudd told him to “fuck off”. Rudd claims that on January 4, 2010, in private conversation, Gillard also advised dropping both the CPRS and the idea of a CPRS-triggered double dissolution. Rudd was shocked to discover the thinness of Gillard’s commitment to action on climate change. According to Rudd, within the carbon pricing policy inner circle, he and Penny Wong were champions of climate-change action. Gillard and Wayne Swan – the supposedly intellectually challenged treasurer whom Rudd seems to hate almost as fiercely as he does Gillard – were laggards. Unable to make progress on the climate-change front, Rudd now threw himself into negotiating with the state premiers what he describes as “the greatest health and hospital reform the country had seen in a generation”.

On April 21, 2010, a meeting was held of the cabinet committee that had seen Australia through the global financial crisis. Wayne Swan had claimed he needed a decision on the CPRS now, so his budget could be planned, something Rudd dismisses as “bullshit”. For her part, as she explains in her 2014 memoir My Story, Julia Gillard was “fed up to the back teeth” with Rudd’s post-Copenhagen “procrastination”. The committee decided to postpone the CPRS at least until 2012–2013.

Rudd tells us that when the committee met he was exhausted by the pace of his health negotiations. He claims he might very well have changed his mind by the time the full cabinet met to provide the formal endorsement needed. Shortly before that cabinet meeting, the decision for the CPRS postponement was leaked to Lenore Taylor, then at The Sydney Morning Herald. Rudd subsequently learned that it was leaked by a member of Gillard’s staff, something that in her memoir Julia Gillard does not deny. This ensured that the postponement would be accepted by cabinet. More importantly, it ensured that Rudd’s reputation would be destroyed. As it was. As Julia Gillard, Rudd thinks, knew it would be. This was Gillard’s true purpose. The master of politics’s “dark arts” was impatient for the prime ministership. Since January, he now believes, she had been preparing her passage to the prize, principally with faction leaders in caucus Mark Arbib, David Feeney and Don Farrell and national secretary Karl Bitar.

In the most fascinating chapter of The PM Years, Rudd collects additional evidence on this question. On June 10, 2009, as WikiLeaks revealed, the US deputy chief of mission in Canberra sent a cable to Washington titled “Gillard: On Track to Become Australia’s Next Prime Minister”. According to one of the American embassy’s regular intelligence sources, the South Australian Right faction leader Don Farrell, Gillard was already “campaigning for the leadership”. Tony Burke – according to Rudd his disgruntled minister for agriculture – has revealed that in April 2010 he raised the possibility of her prime ministership with Gillard. If she was a loyal deputy, as she claims, why did she not tell Rudd about this conversation? In late May or early June, a member of Gillard’s staff, John Whelan, drafted a victory speech to be delivered on her accession to the prime ministership. According to Rudd, Whelan’s claim that it was written without Gillard’s knowledge “doesn’t pass the pub test”. On June 2, 2010, the US assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, arranged a meeting between Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Kim Beazley, and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Their conversation almost certainly concerned Julia Gillard’s campaign for the prime ministership – something not being discussed in the Australian media at that time – and whether there were grounds in Washington for concern should it succeed. Beazley informed the office of Australia’s foreign minister, Stephen Smith, about his conversation. Neither Beazley nor Smith informed Rudd that the possibility of Julia Gillard’s ascent to the prime ministership of Australia had been discussed with the US secretary of state.

In early June, Arbib and Bitar commissioned party research whose purpose was almost certainly to convince caucus members that the replacement of Rudd as prime minister was a matter of urgency. If that was not its purpose, why was it not shown to the prime minister? Former ALP powerbroker Graham Richardson revealed to Four Corners in February 2012 that a “week or so” before it happened he had learned of preparations for Rudd’s removal. On the Sunday before the coup, Julia Gillard shared a flight with Martin Ferguson, the resources and energy minister. “[It was] very clear to me all the way to Canberra she was about one thing … a change of leader,” Ferguson said in the documentary The Killing Season. Julia Gillard claims that on the spur of the moment she decided to contest the leadership after reading Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey’s (in Rudd’s opinion “spectacularly inaccurate”) June 23 Sydney Morning Herald article. According to Rudd, this cannot be believed. As Julia Gillard told journalist Liz Jackson in an unguarded moment, she had come to her decision on the question of the prime ministership “very, very slowly …”

From these different evidentiary fragments, Rudd’s analysis disposes of the idea that the coup of June 23, 2010 was a case of a spontaneous political combustion triggered by Julia Gillard’s sudden high moral dudgeon. According to Rudd, the coup was planned by the group he calls “the powerbrokers of the right” or “the faceless men”. Julia Gillard “was actively working for a change in the leadership for a long, long time before her alleged conversion on the evening of 23 June 2010”. Aspects of Rudd’s case seem to me unlikely. Did Gillard really suggest postponing the CPRS to destroy Rudd’s reputation rather than, as she claims, to bring an end to a damaging period of policy paralysis and drift? But on both the question of whether or not the coup was organised and the question of whether or not it was with Julia Gillard’s knowledge and encouragement at least in the late stages, Rudd’s alternative narrative seems to me convincing.

Mystery still surrounds the organisation of the coup and its purpose. One standard claim – that Rudd was leading Labor to almost certain electoral defeat – makes little sense. It is true that his personal popularity and the popularity of his government suffered because of the CPRS postponement and the war with the mining corporations, as well as other issues, most importantly the deaths from the home insulation program and his government’s mishandling of the new wave of asylum-seeker boats. However, as Rudd demonstrates, his government was the most popular in recent Australian history. In the entire time of his prime ministership, as measured in the fortnightly Newspoll, Labor trailed the Coalition in two-party-preferred terms on only one occasion. At the time Arbib and his fellow Gillardistas were undermining Rudd with their secret party research, the last Newspoll published before the coup had Labor leading the Coalition 52 per cent to 48. Rudd turns to an arch-enemy for support. According to John Howard, no mean judge of matters of this kind, the dumping of Rudd was “a colossal blunder”. Howard believes that had Rudd been allowed to fight the 2010 election on the claim that under his government Australia had been spared from recession, Labor would have won handsomely.

Rudd also provides powerful evidence that calls into question the standard claim that his government was “dysfunctional”. How, he asks, did a dysfunctional government manage to steer a brave and successful policy passage through the global financial crisis?

The political scientist Patrick Weller is the most respected student of Australian prime ministers and their style of rule. For his book on the Rudd government, completed on the eve of the coup, Weller was given almost full access to the relevant government papers. Weller was on balance very impressed by the way Rudd governed. After interviewing almost every member of Rudd’s cabinet, he wrote: “Ministers described Rudd’s Cabinet style in 2008 and 2009 as civilised, ordered and restrained.”

The dates here are probably significant. Rudd suffered and was affected by several hard blows in the last six months of his government. However, there was no reason to believe that he might not regain his purpose and his poise. Moreover, as former senator Sam Dastyari, general secretary of the ALP’s NSW branch at the time of the coup, once argued: “Why didn’t a delegation of senior cabinet ministers go meet with the prime minister and say, ‘Hey we want some things to change’?”

Why indeed? Rudd admits some mistakes. Self-­evidently, the postponement of the CPRS, but also that he tried to accomplish too much in his first term, that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and, for him most importantly, that he was politically naive, trusting colleagues where trust was not deserved. “Until the evening of the coup, I did not believe Gillard and Swan would betray me,” he writes. Only after the coup did he learn, in the words of Gillard’s “former partner” Craig Emerson, that she had always “loathed” him.

These mistakes, however, do not constitute Rudd’s principal explanation for June 23. He believes he was taken down because he threatened some of the most powerful corporations in contemporary Australia. According to Rudd, Rupert Murdoch felt that the state-owned National Broadband Network posed a lethal threat to his only Australian money-spinner, Foxtel. Rudd’s mining tax proposal made instant enemies of the global giants BHP and Rio Tinto. He also believes he was taken down by a handful of politicians. His deputy, Julia Gillard, the Lady Macbeth of The PM Years, was driven by overpowering ambition. To gain her prize she moved to the “far right” on the questions of US policy in the Middle East and Palestinian statehood. The rising senator Mark Arbib, who wanted to become the Graham Richardson of his generation, did not take kindly to Rudd’s chastisement over his role in the home insulation disaster. The over-entitled backbench faction leaders, in particular David Feeney and Don Farrell, smarting from Rudd’s rough but just treatment, were waiting for an opportunity for revenge.

In all this there is, I believe, something intangible but fundamental that is missing: Rudd’s inability to win the loyalty of his colleagues in the cabinet and parliament. In February 2012, at the time of his first unsuccessful challenge to Julia Gillard’s leadership, Gillard invited her supporters to speak openly about the former prime minister. Eighteen responded. In their comments there was a common thread. In their relations with Rudd, they felt they were being used. Rudd tells us that after learning of Gillard’s challenge to his leadership in 2010 he took to the phone. At 3am he gave up. He only realised now how few friends he still had within the parliamentary party. Labor’s colossal blunder of June 23, 2010 turned in the end at least in part on a question of character.

Shortly after losing the prime ministership, Rudd let it be known through Senator John Faulkner that he was interested in becoming Julia Gillard’s foreign minister. She did not oblige. Early in the 2010 election campaign, the Gillard government was derailed by damaging leaks to Laurie Oakes. The first concerned a conversation on the night of June 23 in which Rudd suggested to Gillard that he stay on as prime minister until November, and if it then appeared to the trusted intermediary John Faulkner that Rudd was leading Labor to defeat, he would resign in Gillard’s favour. Gillard agreed. Minutes later, she reneged. A week after the first leak was publicised, Oakes reported that in cabinet Gillard had opposed both an increase in the age pension and the introduction of paid parental leave.

Almost everyone believed Rudd was Oakes’ direct or indirect source. He had both a thirst for revenge and a political motive. When in mid campaign Rudd was offered the foreign ministership if Gillard prevailed – “I had little choice,” Gillard explained in her memoir – the leaks at once dried up. In The PM Years Rudd denies responsibility. He claims that on the morning he stepped down from the leadership he told caucus about the November deadline deal Gillard had quickly reneged on, so the leak about that could have come from more than a hundred people. Similarly 30 or more people heard Gillard’s cabinet comments about age pensioners and paid parental leave. I doubt that this will change anyone’s mind. It hasn’t mine.

There is no space here to outline Rudd’s account of the aftermath of the coup: his three-year journey back to the prime ministership. Rudd claims his response to those who approached him on the subject of a return in these years was “‘You guys knifed me. You guys were party to my knifing. You guys can fix it.’” This radically underplays his leadership of, and psychological investment in, the political struggle to put right what he regarded as a terrible wrong. Rudd pretends he was dismayed by polls showing him to be more popular than Julia Gillard, welcoming them “like a hole in the head”, as he puts it. “All political eyes were focused, once again, on me.” Ye gods, how terrible!

What Gillard regarded as three years of unrelenting sabotage, Rudd has been able to convince himself was a righteous moral crusade for his party and his nation. Of the camp of his supporters he writes: “This was a group of good people. Men and women. Right and left. Cabinet and caucus … [T]hey had been drawn together by a collective conclusion that Gillard and the faceless men were determined to take the government and the party down in a screaming heap.” After savaging without restraint those he feels have betrayed him – especially Gillard, Wayne Swan and in recent times Malcolm Turnbull over his broken promise regarding Rudd’s UN secretary-­general bid – on page 598 of his memoir Rudd arrives at this conclusion: “[W]hile I will never forget the events of June 2010, I bear no lasting enmity for those who engineered them. Too many people in Australian public life remain consumed by ancient hatreds. I do not intend to be among them.” Rudd remains astonishingly un-self-knowing.

In return for assuming the prime ministership in 2013 on the eve of an election he was certain to lose, Kevin Rudd was able to change the Labor Party’s leadership rules, thus ensuring that what happened to him could never be repeated. Under his leadership, Labor won a respectable 55 House of Representative seats in the 2013 election – despite the merciless lampooning by the papers controlled by Rupert Murdoch, “the greatest, most malignant cancer on our Australian democracy”. The electoral catastrophe that would almost certainly have occurred under Gillard was thus narrowly avoided. For five years of leadership stability and for being now in a position to return to government this year, Bill Shorten owes Rudd a great deal. In deciding in which Labor pantheon Rudd will take permanent residence – Rats or Heroes – I hope that alongside the great work of his government during the global financial crisis, this too will be remembered.

February 12, 2019

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

From the front page

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

In This Issue


Trains, pains and Berejiklian

Will a big infrastructure spend help or hinder NSW’s Coalition government this election?


Tuckshop intervention

How did buying lunch in a Northern Territory school get so complicated?


Screen addiction

As more of our lives are lived online, more people aren’t coping


Ben Quilty in bleeding colour

The Australian artist opens up on the eve of a retrospective exhibition

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020. Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

Image of Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled (TBOMB)’, 2020

Mission statement: Daniel Boyd’s ‘Treasure Island’

An AGNSW exhibition traces the development of the Indigenous artist’s idiosyncratic technique, which questions ideas of perception

Image of Bundanon

Shades of grey: Kerstin Thompson Architects

The lauded Melbourne-based architectural firm showcase a rare ability to sensitively mediate between the old and the new

Still from ‘Men’

Fear as folk: ‘Men’

Writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film is an unsubtle but ambitious pastoral horror, mixing the Christian with the classical

More in Books

Image of James Joyce and publisher Sylvia Beach in Paris

The consecration: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

A century after its publication, the difficult reputation of Joyce’s seminal novel has overshadowed its pleasures

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Image of Lea Ypi

Eastern blocked: Lea Ypi’s ‘Free’

Growing up in Eastern Europe in the ’90s, as the free market’s arrival failed to ‘end history’

Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime