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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 09:38 | SYDNEY

A Rudd-y drover's dog

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9 July 2010 09:03

The idea of 'The Kevin' as Defence Minister throws off so many sparks it deserves to be cranked up and contemplated. The suggestion from Nick Bisley shows his usual sharp intelligence, but I had not suspected him of having this touch of twisted genius.

Defence is too important a portfolio ever to be anything but a crucial post. Robert Ray called it one of the handful of real jobs in Cabinet. But after the explosion of Joel and the exhaustion of John, Defence is looking like a challenging chalice to sip from.

The death job in the Labor Party used to be Aboriginal Affairs, giving rise to a classic Labor line: 'The Prime Minister offered me Aboriginal Affairs, the bastard! Why does he hate me; I never did him a favour?' Reworked, it would go something like this: 'She's offered me Defence. I didn't realise my career had peaked.'

Apart from Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson, Defence tends to be the last top job for a politician. Whoever succeeds Falkner will be the 15th minister to preside over the unified Defence structure (without junior Ministers for Army, Navy and Air Force). The average term of those Defence Ministers has been less than three years, and after recent performances, that average is contracting further. Defence is an unwieldy beast and is throwing off its riders with growing frequency.

I part with Nick on the idea that Defence usually 'captures' its minister. Sometimes it crushes with paper and issues, yes; occasionally it infuriates, yes; but only a few ministers have been taken prisoner in recent times. John Howard heads the list. He loved Defence and the budget reflected his passion. Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson could also be placed in the happy POW camp.

Joel Fitzgibbon, by contrast, is an example of how strained the relationship can become. Fitzgibbon, no doubt, still has strong affection for some bits of the sprawling Defence empire. And that's the point. Defence is such a diverse as well as complex beast, it is possible to love some parts and hate others.

Put that way, perhaps Defence and Kevin Rudd deserve each other. The man who never sleeps and thrives on every last detail could do battle with the bureaucracy that generates more detail than any other. The paper would fly. After all, the 2009 Defence White Paper belonged to Rudd more than his Defence Minister.

Having said all that, Rudd's natural home if Labor wins the election must surely be Foreign Affairs. Rudd was his own über Foreign Minister in the way that Howard was his own über Defence Minister.

Gillard's promise of a senior ministry after a successful election comes with an implied threat. Rudd must be on his absolute best behaviour between now and the day of the poll. Not a gripe. Not a grumble. Not a moment's bitterness. He must not have a 'drover's dog moment' if he wishes to get back to the front bench.

After stepping aside as leader for Bob Hawke in 1983 on the day the election was called, Bill Hayden famously remarked that 'a drover's dog could lead the Labor Party to victory at the present time'. Labor's strong affection and respect for Hayden meant that caustic judgement on his successor was no bar to Hayden's impressive resurrection as Foreign Minister. Rudd will get no such dispensation. He must love his leader in thought, deed and word. Anything less would be seen as destructive ill-discipline which would disqualify Rudd from any return to the ministry.

Gillard and Rudd both know how this game is played. Her promise of a top job has a hair trigger attached. One word out of place and his exile to the backbench becomes permanent. That would compound Rudd's misfortune and deny Australia the services of a politician of extraordinary talent who still has much to offer.

Photo by Flickr user juxtaposer1, used under a Creative Commons license.

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