The Politics    Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Killing Season, part III

By Sean Kelly

The powerful series highlights our fascination with what might have been

Watching the final episode of The Killing Season last night, I wondered how on Earth Gillard survived as long as she did.

That last episode was a frenetic mess of bitterness and barriers. It begins with Kevin Rudd’s removal, and the acknowledgment by those involved that it forever stained Gillard. It moves on to an election campaign brought low by vicious leaks. It moves on to the impossibilities of minority government and the continuous guerrilla war waged by Rudd. And over all of that wafts the pungent stench of misogyny.

Gillard was not spared by the program – and conceded several mistakes herself – but the overall impression was of a leader under constant attack, withstanding all. The episode itself has the feel of an overstuffed suitcase: its content threatens to burst the seams. (I mean this as a compliment.)

The contrast with the first episode is marked, and, I suspect, entirely deliberate. The series’ beginning felt open, light. There was space. That pacing, that calm excitement, reminded us of the breath of hope, or at least newness, that Labor brought to the country in 2007. The beginning of the series took its time. The first two episodes covered two and a half years between them.

The final episode alone covered three years – and was as crammed as you might expect. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how this series matched form to content, and I am glad to say that remained true until the end. Last night’s show was frenzied, overwhelming, almost aggressive – which was how those three years often felt.  

I don’t just mean for those inside the bunker. Something happened to the country in the years between 2007 and 2013, and it affected us all. By the time of the 2013 election, the nation had been hammered over the head with politics for too long. Everybody had had a gutful. We couldn’t stand it any more.

I am envious of those who will watch the series in the future, who will consume the three episodes together – for that, I suspect, tells the grander story of those years.

So, having finished, was the series a success? It depends, of course, on your criteria. It was excellent television: gripping, narratively sharp, suspenseful (despite the fact we all knew exactly what would happen), and – this cannot be overstated – with superb photography. It succeeded in drawing huge numbers of Australians to their television screens to watch a documentary on a subject we are constantly told Australians have little interest in: politics. (On that, it’s worth noting that recent interviews with both Gillard and John Howard have also rated well.)

Was it the comprehensive version of Labor’s years in power? This is where it gets difficult. It is very difficult to cram years of government into one-hour instalments. Many, many things will inevitably be missed. 

But that flaw, if that is what it is, was imminent in the title: if you’ll forgive me a statement of the obvious, The Killing Season was always going to be about the killing season. And it is a result Labor can hardly complain about. As I wrote last week, Labor’s time in government is likely forever to be seen as the events that preceded Rudd’s removal, and the events that flowed from it. That is Labor’s doing, not the show’s makers.  

I do feel, though, that the reasonable decision to treat that moment as definitive invites us to demand more in terms of explanation. It was not only a handful of people who were involved in Rudd’s removal (though of course they were led by that notorious handful). Ultimately, the numbers were so overwhelming as to make a vote unnecessary.

What, then, led to what still appears to most Australians as a form of temporary madness? There were many things occurring in those strange weeks that were avoided or barely alluded to in the series. A new type of media cycle. The imposition of a state politics mindset on a federal political situation (which is different in subtle but important ways from the simple involvement of influential state players). And last but absolutely not least, the human frustration of many MPs with Rudd’s leadership – the desire to be free of a man they were heartily sick of. None of those are justifications – but they are partial explanations of what happened, important to understanding the febrile atmosphere of the time.

I concede that may be judging the series on terms not its own. We are on tricky ground here. It was an oral history, and had to rely on what people were willing to say (myself included). It would be an unwise politician who conceded they helped remove a prime minister because they were tired of his personal style. And Ferguson rightly made the choice to keep editorial to a minimum. The explanations I am talking about are perhaps more properly the province of books. Nevertheless, I believe they are an important part of the story of what happened.

I sometimes think that the fascination of history is not in asking what happened, in asking how did A cause B, but in asking Could things have happened any differently? We are obsessed with what-ifs, wondering whether there was anything we could have done to avoid our fates.

Ultimately this powerful series had the weighty feel of tragedy: human foibles finding their expression at the highest levels of politics, the inexorable unfolding of events set in motion long before. Yes, it was Shakespearean.

The Alan Milburn quote which concludes the show is a killer: “The hard question that the Australian Labor Party has to ask itself is this: How is it possible that you win an election in November 2007 on the scale that you do, with the goodwill that you have, with the permission that you’re gifted by the public, and you manage to lose all that goodwill, to trash the permission and to find yourself out of office within just six years? I’ve never seen anything quite like it in any country, anywhere, anytime, in any part of the world. No-one can escape blame for that, in my view.”

Milburn is right. But ultimately I prefer the Gillard quote which precedes it. It captures not just what happened in Canberra, but what happened to all of us in those years, and what happens to all of us, in one form or another, in our lifetimes. It is, more than anything else, I think, the story of the show:

“I don’t see what alternate reality was possible, other than the ones we lived through. So I think people are really, you know, wistfully hoping for something that was never going to be.”

 

Today’s links

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.

@mrseankelly

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