The Politics    Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Killing Season, Part II

By Sean Kelly

Political battles have human faces, and history is always imperfect

Look, I promise not to post about The Killing Season every week. But only because it finishes next week.

If you’ll allow me a moment of quick self-justification, it’s this: the series, intentionally or not, prompts me to broader considerations of the practice of history; the waves and washes of recent Australian events, the influence of which can still be felt; and, as I wrote last week, the close connection of historical unfoldings with the unfolding of our own lives. Politics is so often trapped in the petty troughs of daily battle that one should take any excuse to step outside.

A few thoughts surfaced for me during last night’s episode.

The first was the nascent and sure to be long-lasting contest for hearts and minds between the post-politics Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Old politicians don’t really retire: they just cultivate their legacies.

Talking to people over the past year, some inclined to be kinder to Gillard, some inclined to be kinder to Rudd, there has been a consensus that Gillard, so far, has been winning the post-politics war. She has picked her public appearances carefully, taken on an array of visible work, written a best-selling memoir, and has slowly built a following that wasn’t always apparent during her years as prime minister.

But of course the pursuit of history is complicated – and it’s early days. Last night, as the episode drew to a close, I realised we were two-thirds of the way through the series, and a little less than half way through Labor’s time in government. Gillard’s term had only just begun.

I was reminded of something an astute observer said to me recently, which was a prediction that Rudd’s story would come to dominate the shape of the histories of that time. There is potentially some truth to this, at least at this early stage: Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise book on the period follows a similar ratio to The Killing Season.

That’s a reflection of a reality that probably neither Rudd nor Gillard would have preferred: Labor’s time in government has become defined by Rudd’s removal from power.

Everything about the Rudd and Gillard governments now seems to unfold from that moment, backwards and forwards in time. It is like the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the outbreak of World War I: everything that happened beforehand can now be read as leading to that event. Everything that happened afterwards appears as the inevitable consequence, unforeseeable then but unavoidable nonetheless. It is impossible to look at pictures of Rudd and Gillard smiling for the cameras as they took over the Labor leadership in 2006 and not think of the enmity that was brewing. It is impossible to read Rudd’s campaign speeches about education revolutions and the perils of climate change without the filter of tragedy laid over them. And it is impossible to understand Gillard’s demise, and Rudd’s final downfall a few months later, in the dying days of 2013, as anything other than the belated ricochets of the bullet that was fired that night.

It is of course true the government was hopelessly divided; but, as is always the case with history, there are other stories that can be told. There were many achievements during those years, before and after 2010; it is Labor’s task to ensure they do not fall from view permanently.

The second thing that stayed with me was the bitterness, from all quarters. It’s possible to watch and simply be voyeuristically shocked by the scandalous things people say. But it’s worth thinking for a moment about why those things are being said: these are people, the subject of this series is their lives, and there were things done and said on all sides that all of them will think about until they no longer draw breath. Those emotions are real.

The final aspect lies in the unresolvable contradictions in the accounts. The participants don’t just disagree about what should have taken place: they completely disagree about what did take place. Yes, perhaps some people are lying, politicians have agendas, yada yada yada. But it points to the greater difficulty, which is that history is always inadequate to the task it sets itself; it cannot finally uncover the truth it (sometimes) pretends is there.

Some people have their complaints about that: Why am I watching if there is nothing new? If I’m not going to learn what actually happened?

But of course that is the nature of the enterprise. At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie, I would say: the answers may lie always out of reach. We should continue to ask the questions nonetheless.

Which may be a good motto for politics, too.


Today’s links

  • This is getting a bit ridiculous. Following on from at least three cases of cabinet mistrust in recent weeks are reports that Tony Abbott has kept legal advice on the government’s proposed citizenship laws from most of cabinet. The PM wouldn’t comment.
  • A report that Labor is likely to adopt boat turnbacks as policy before the next election. I reckon this has felt inevitable for a while (though it’s still big news). It will cause controversy at Labor’s national conference in July.
  • Shots of the US dollars allegedly paid to people smugglers, in order to get them to turn boats around, by Australian officials. And more details of the alleged interception. Yesterday I was angry at Labor for not pursuing the story in Question Time. They did today, late in Question Time, get around to asking about it again.
  • The Greens agreed to policy Labor is against – the government’s proposed pension changes – in exchange for a guarantee that the Tax White Paper would examine superannuation.
  • Bad news for this column: Australians aren’t interested in political news.
  • Tonight is the night that political types in Canberra have to decide between watching State of Origin and frocking up for the Midwinter Ball. The Ball this year is off the record. Previously there has been a vague convention that the proceedings – including “comic” speeches from the PM and Opposition leader – are kind of off the record, but it’s been so vague and ill-observed that I guess somebody decided to sharpen it up. I tend to agree with those who say the sharpening should go the other way: make it on the record – at least the speeches – so we can see our politicians be human and perhaps even funny for one night in 365.
  • A quiz! Which MP said what about asylum seekers? (I scored six.)
  • Julia Gillard and Michelle Obama visited a school in London to promote worldwide access to education for girls.
  • Google might be getting into the market for live sports broadcasts. This would be a huge change. It may even be the beginning of the end – well, perhaps the middle of the end – for free-to-air TV. And the Murdoch succession plan has been approved.
  • China and Australia signed a Free Trade Agreement.
  • Every Senate crossbencher has voted with Labor and the Greens to establish two inquiries into actions taken by Attorney-General George Brandis. One crossbencher said: “Every so often we would give Eric [Abetz] the benefit of the doubt because he's a good bloke but George hasn’t bothered with us. George hasn’t won any hearts, it has to be said. He’s not the most warm and cuddly bloke in the Senate.”
  • Dennis Atkins asks whether Bill Shorten can become the first factional warlord to rise to the position of PM. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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