Remembering Rudd


David Marr, Power Trip, Kevin RuddIn Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech comrade Clementis places his cap on Klement Gottwald's head on the day of Communist annunciation in 1948. After Clementis is hanged four years later, his head is subsequently airbrushed out of all propaganda photographs. Hence, 'All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald's head', quips Kundera.

Memory. It is everything we are. Identity is meaningless without it. Personal. Collective. Shared. Understood. What else is our history but a process of remembering? This applies on both the individual and the societal scale. 'Lest We Forget' is not only an epithet, it's literally a call for a nation to remember together.

Equally, our histories are about selective memory and the process of forgetting. Henry Reynolds asked (in a book of the same title) about the Stolen Generations, 'Why Weren't we Told?'. The teller of the story, and the omissions they make, are constitutive of the tapestry we weave.

There are many memories of Kevin Rudd that come through in David Marr's excellent Quarterly Essay 'Power Trip — The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd'. Most poignant among these is Rudd the young boy. Forced off his parents' farm after his father's death, forced to sleep with his mother Margaret in a VW on the side of country road in Queensland, the young Rudd developed a strong sense of injustice.

It was during this period that Rudd discovered what politics ought to be. As Marr puts it, this was the politics of decency. Through his experiences of being shifted from one school to another, with welfare and the public health system, Rudd became alive to what he termed 'the responsibilities of the state'. His personal remembering of the inadequacies of the services provided by the state was a catalyst for his political foundations.

Marr returns to this point several times, and it leaves the most enduring picture of Rudd the man: at once steely in his determination, polished in his performance, and yet vulnerable — alone.

The politics of decency was the centerpiece of Rudd's maiden speech to Parliament, and again in his first speech as Prime Minister. 'Compassion is not a dirty word,' he said. 'Compassion is not a sign of weakness. In my view, compassion in politics and in public policy is in fact a hallmark of great strength. It is a hallmark of a society which has about it a decency which speaks for itself.'

What do we remember about Rudd? Early memories recall when 'Kevin Rudd' the brand became currency on a national scale: the academic; the diplomat; the essay on Bonhoeffer in The Monthly; the promise of a new way of governing, with a return to the values of decency and equality; the Apology; the ideas summit.

And then? And then it all goes a bit foggy. Copenhagen. The greatest ethical issue of our time, and no emissions trading scheme to show for it. Angry miners. Rudd became the political equivalent of a piece of roofing insulation: clumpy, lacking in transparency, and better left up in the attic. The lofty themes of his early days in government became few and far between.

When did the remembering change? How long will the nation's memory last?

Rather than a breakdown over themes, it appears that the nation's love affair soured the more we got to know Rudd the technocrat.

And love him we did, once. Recall 89 per cent of us thought him a 'man of vision' when Newspoll asked us in the first few months of 2008. The more time Rudd spent in office, the more we heard about his pedantry over small matters, the ungodly hours expected of public servants, his inability to delegate. Here, it seemed, was a small-minded man who worked meticulously all week to cross the Ts and then went to church every Sunday like the good Catholic schoolboy from Nambour.

God might have been giving him some redemption, but the polls weren't.

Marr uses a fitting example from Australia Day this year. For his address to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Rudd was allocated 10 minutes, but took 45. This would have been fine, had he delivered a speech that approximated the eloquence or spirit of his Apology speech. Instead, he talked about the Government's record during the global financial crisis. He talked about transport and infrastructure in New South Wales. He talked about the National Broadband Network. And he rattled off a series of investment figures to boot.

Rudd seemed to be giving voice to the proverbial elephant when he finished, 'I don't know about you, but I'm pining for a drink'.

Of more import is not what people will remember of Rudd but whether the memory of Howard is distant enough. The electorate might be dissatisfied that the Government has delivered on little of its real social justice agenda. But people aren't ready to think about Tony Abbott in prime ministerial terms, and not just because he's Tony Abbott. It's still a choice between the Government we have versus what we had. It would be too much of a stretch to collectively consider what a new conservative government would feel like.

The thing that really matters is how the public casts its votes. Inextricably, the process of casting one's vote is a process of casting one's mind back, as much as it is about voting for a future government, be it a Gillard Government or an Abbott one. Either way, the remembering of Rudd has only begun, and only time will tell whether that remembering contains sufficient memories of decency politics on which to hang Rudd's hat.

More on the leadership takeover:
It's a girl!
Gillard's win a loss for feminists
Goodbye Kevin, hello Julia
Moving forward with Gillard

Emily MillaneEmily Millane is a lawyer and writer with an interest in politics and human relations. She completed her honours in comparative history at The University of Melbourne in 2007 and was admitted to practice as a lawyer in 2009.

Topic tags: Emily Millane, David Marr, Kevin Rudd, Quarterly Essay, Power Trip, Julia Gillard, Milan Kundera



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Existing comments

Kevin Rudd seriously threatened the status quo. He is not a failure, he is a symbol of our collective failure to address urgent questions like climate change and the wholesale abuse of the natural environment of Australia. The mining tax, for example, is a brilliant and popular solution for protecting the country in monetary terms, but not if you are in the very tiny minority known as mining magnates. Since Copenhagen the powers have been out to get him.

The Oracle | 25 June 2010  

And that's the tragedy, isn't it - that's what makes me so angry when I think about Rudd and the whole situation we now find ourselves in.

As a relative outsider, Rudd had the chance to institute a new political dynamic in this country: a dynamic of decency, a politics of ideas, a narrative of genuine partnership between the body politic and the citizenry.

And what have we been left with? A return to the same, old, grubby system of mercenary political "pragmatism". Whatever else Rudd might have achieved, this failure has left our national life profoundly impoverished...

Brendan Byrne | 25 June 2010  

Kevin Rudd threatened the status quo. He is a world leader and that's what his enemies resent. Rudd is not a failure, he is a symbol of our collective failure to address the issues of the hour, including climate change and capitalist consumer greed. The mining tax is a popular solution to the dilemma of Australian fiscal protection, but not popular with that tiny minority of Australians known as mining magnates. Remember what Clinton said about Rudd? But after Copenhagen the powers of this world were out to get him.

The Oracle | 25 June 2010  

Vision, decency, etc, are all very well. But a PM has to be, above all, a manager of both business and people. Leading a government is a demanding task in its own right, and it was this failure that brought Rudd undone. Any Canberra insider or senior public servant could see this coming, even if they like me were surprised at how soon, and how fast, the end came.

Marr has shed light on why he is the way he is, and that is illuminating and instructive to us, as voters and as empathetic observers.

The lesson: we need complete people as leaders, they may be driven, but they absolutely need a balance of human and political qualities to earn and maintain the support and respect of voters, and to manage the complex processes involved in achieving their objectives.

I wish Rudd all the best, and hope that in remaining a member of the government he can still contribute.

The Interested Observer | 25 June 2010  

The problem with Mr Kevin Rudd, he is in the wrong political party. The Labor Party is run by the Trade Union movement.

Ron Cini | 25 June 2010  

Ron, the trouble with the Labor Party is not that it is run by the Trade Union "Movement", but rather that it is run by a handful of professional politicians. But so are the Coalition parties, it's just that they are a different bunch. Neither party is truly democratic in its processes or representative in its membership.

Kevin Rudd achieved a lot, not the least being instrumental in encouraging the electorate to throw out the Howard government. In due time, he will be fondly remembered for the many other worthwhile achievements he made. But his problem was that he was ineffective in carrying his party colleagues with him and so lost their confidence.

Brendan, I sympathise - and empathise - with your desire for a 'narrative of genuine partnership between the body politic and the citizenry'. We haven't had such a relationship for a long time. Hopefully (and I can do little but hope), Julia Gillard has some of the skills and attitudes that might bring us closer to such a relationship. I have no hope that Tony Abbott could achieve what you want.

Warwick | 26 June 2010  

In my previous post, I referred to the nature of our so-called 'leadership' in the political sphere. This article from this morning's Age is relevant. The problem is not just Rudd's particular version, the problem is widespread.

Warwick | 28 June 2010  

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