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Review: Kevin Rudd and his road to be PM

This autobiography frames his worldview, but Kevin Rudd must also confront his own effectiveness.

Photo: Lukas Coch/Getty Images
Photo: Lukas Coch/Getty Images
Published 21 Dec 2017 

Kevin Rudd remains a polarising figure in Australian politics. The subject of near-messianic support as ‘Kevin07’, his legacy is contentious. His latest attempt to influence that legacy is Not For the Faint-hearted, the first (!) volume of his autobiography.

Political memoirs are inevitably self-centred. They are frequently motivated – at least in part – by a desire to diminish opponents. And most politicians want to record their version of history, especially about their role in the affairs of state and party.

Not For the Faint-hearted is no exception. There are long sections in the chapters on the Iraq war and Australia-US relations with barely a mention of Labor colleagues. Highlighting John Howard’s flaws is a central theme. Other Coalition ministers are treated with derision – especially Alexander Downer – or ignored. Within the Labor party, the targets are the factional leaders and their acolytes. And Rudd documents, often exhaustively, his efforts to challenge the Howard government on international issues, and to articulate and have Labor endorse a coherent, up-to-date foreign policy.

But Rudd’s purpose is grander: the book is ‘intended to be a letter of encouragement … to those who may be considering a future in public life’. He sees politics as a vocation to improve society and is dismissive of those who are just playing a game.

Rudd tells who and what helped make him the person he is. He sets out an intellectually coherent rationale for his political worldview, his spiritual views, his decision to embrace a political vocation, and his foreign policy for Australia. But there are omissions that reflect a traditional foreign policy/security approach to international relations.

The book largely ignores the impact of international finance and trade in international relations. Rudd notes the effect of actions by the International Monetary Fund during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. He refers in passing to Chinese support for Asian countries through the Chiang Mai Initiative, but doesn’t identify this as the first post-Deng Xiaoping Chinese challenge to the Pax Americana global and regional institutional framework. The World Trade Organisation isn’t mentioned despite having the only close-to-effective international dispute-resolution system. Even when shadow minister for foreign affairs and trade, trade policy is ignored except to foreshadow an initiative pursued in government to lower barriers to financial services exports.

Notwithstanding his characterisation in the book of climate change as ‘the great global challenge of our time’, Rudd pays little attention to global warming until it is one of a number of points of difference with the Coalition when he is opposition leader.

Rudd’s interest in and familiarity with China is a constant theme but the country does not receive the forensic attention accorded to relations with Indonesia, terrorism, the Iraq War and the Australian Wheat Board scandal. Howard looms large in all these issues. Rudd is determined to show that Howard – ‘the most formidable conservative politician since Menzies’ – was inept, incompetent or deceitful.

Most of all, Rudd wants Howard to be held to account for taking Australia into the Iraq War. Rudd is very sensitive about Howard’s continuing reference to Rudd’s public statements in 2002 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Rudd rightly highlights Australia’s failure to hold its own version of the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry. The inquiries that were held – by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and the Flood review of intelligence - deliberately had limited scope. (Howard, like Bob Hawke, was a master of deflection by setting narrow terms of reference and tight deadlines.)

This precluded any consideration of how decisions were made, or what lessons could be identified to improve future policy-making. Rudd acknowledges that he promised to hold a Royal Commission when he became PM but failed to follow through, for fear of distracting key officials.

This was wrong, despite the argument – not made by Rudd – that caution was justified. There are dangers for the political system if incoming governments use Royal Commissions as political weapons to tarnish the reputation of their predecessors, as Tony Abbott did when he became PM, rather than to learn from mistakes. However, justifying a decision to go to war on the basis of intelligence that didn’t support that argument, without exhausting alternatives, when post-war planning was inchoate, and in a country outside of Australia’s region of interest, is vastly different from investigating the flawed implementation of a home insulation scheme.

While Rudd’s volume one concludes with a litany of the achievements of his first government, volume two will be a challenge. Telling the story of his time in government will require Rudd to confront issues about his effectiveness. How was it that a Prime Minister who had an astonishing familiarity with so many policy issues, who was smart and worked hard, who was better-connected internationally than any predecessor or successor, and who was given so much support – including a cohort of the best and brightest from Victoria’s public service – managed to lead a government that imploded and to blunder a number of key issues in Australia’s relations with Asia?

Part of the answer is that Rudd was a nightmare for ministers and officials. He was unable to run cabinet effectively; many issues were only discussed properly and decisions made when his deputy Julia Gillard was acting PM. He routinely asked for policy papers on complex issues or detailed reports on things that intrigued him, most of which were ignored. He regularly set unreasonable deadlines (as was evidenced clearly in the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program). He always appeared to believe he was the smartest person in the room and so never needed to consider seriously advice that challenged his views.

And yet the chapters about life before becoming an MP show a not-often-seen level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and the ability to write about himself in a self-deprecating way. If his assessment of his time as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister reflects this, then he will make an important contribution to Australian public policy. But if the next volume is all about Kevin, showing how capable he was and targeting his enemies, then it will be an opportunity wasted.

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