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Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 15:05 | SYDNEY
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 15:05 | SYDNEY

The sources of Kevin Rudd's conduct

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9 June 2010 16:13

The more we get to know Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the more enigmatic he seems.

In the latest Quarterly Essay, David Marr portrays the Prime Minister as a man whose distinctive mindset and behaviour stems in large part from the pain and loneliness of a childhood shaped by a recurrent sense of loss: the death of his father, his family's eviction from their farm, and his own compromised sense of dignity at having to depend for a time on the charity of others.

For Marr, it's this deep-seated yearning for redemption which manifests itself in the kind of behaviour for which Rudd has become renowned: his instinct to control; his innate sense of self-importance; vaulting ambition; tempestuousness; and, perhaps most importantly, his determination to conceal his true self behind a calm, reasonable, almost folksy persona.

Marr's essay is an important one. It tells a compelling personal story and explores the interaction between Rudd — in all his psychological complexity — and the structures and institutions of a political system in which power has become concentrated at the top.

But it also provides insight into Rudd's view of the world.

In particular, it's easy to see how the young Rudd might have become so fascinated by China – a country whose national story is in some respects a metaphor for his own private life. In both cases the perception of traumatic loss instills a sense of bereavement and entitlement and a steely determination to succeed. For both, it may well be an ingrained sense of powerlessness and vulnerability which drives their relentless quest for power.

Rudd's inexcusable outburst at Copenhagen ('those Chinese f**kers are trying to rat-f**k us') will not soon be forgotten by Beijing (would Rudd himself forgive such an insult?). It reflects the mounting frustration of a politician coming to terms with the imprudence of his decision to tie his political fortunes at home to a grinding multilateral process abroad, and of a man unaccustomed by now to the feeling of being thwarted.

But I wonder whether there mightn't be something else to it. Could it be that, in dealing with Chinese implacability at Copenhagen, Rudd also encountered a version of himself?

From Marr's interpretation it's easy to see how, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pointedly refusing to leave his hotel room, each Chinese obstruction and obfuscation might have reminded Rudd of characteristics profoundly and irritatingly typical of himself. As Chinese resolve hardened, Rudd's mood clearly metastasised from frustration to rage, revealing – if only for an instant – the angry child who, as Marr suggests, became 'the father of the man'.

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