How Kevin Rudd won and lost Australia

Rudd's remarkable run in power was driven by state politics, factions and Wayne Swan; and it was those same forces that brought him down

When Kevin Rudd led the Australian Labor Party to victory in the federal election of 2007, it marked a high watermark for ALP hegemony on the continent, with all six states, both territories and the Federal Government in Labor hands for the first time Australian history.

I had been somewhat bemused at the Federal Party’s choice of Rudd.

I had known him slightly in the late eighties when he occupied a Heather Simpson-like position in the Wayne Goss government in Queensland.

For kiwi political aficionados, that has probably remained the easiest way to picture Rudd, as a male Heather Simpson who speaks fluent mandarin: policy wonkish, private, autocratic, and sometimes irascible.

Rudd is a product of the deeply factionalised Queensland Branch of the ALP, so unstable that in the early eighties it was taken over by the Federal party in an unprecedented intervention.

Matters settled there in the nineties and noughties as the long awaited taste of power, first under Wayne Goss, and later with Peter Beattie showed the combatants the value of collaboration and unified effort.

Somewhere in this dwindling mayhem Rudd won the Brisbane seat of Griffiths assisted by his factional heavyweight mate, Wayne Swan, whose connections with the huge and powerful Australian Workers Union, a faction on its own in Queensland, made him a vital power broker.

After the 2004 Federal Election defeat when Mark Latham, another kind of loner, imploded both health-wise and intellectually, the Federal Politicians turned to Kevin Rudd to finally end John Howard’s four term reign.

The factional horse trading leading up to Rudd’s win was undertaken by Swan. Rudd didn’t get his hands dirty.

After 2007, the tide begun to run slowly but inexorably against the ALP in the States and territories with a near run thing in the Northern Territory, a narrow loss in Western Australia, and a win with a reduced majority when Beattie bequeathed his last and biggest majority to Anna Bligh in Queensland.

More recently Labor squeaked back in Tasmania with a lower primary vote than the Liberals by forming a coalition with the Greens and a bizarre election in South Australia saw English-born and New Zealand-raised Premier Mike Rann, hold on in the electorate tally, but with 3.2% fewer votes than the Liberal Party.

This near defeat of a previously bullet proof state government and leader could be put down to Rann’s sudden fall from grace through the revelations of Michelle Chantelois, a parliamentary waitress who went public with details of an affair with Rann, which he unconvincingly denied, and her estranged husband attacking the Premier with a rolled up magazine.

The ALP won enough marginals to hang on, aided by the highly dubious but apparently legal technique of handing out bodgie “how to vote” cards which looked like they came from the Family First Party.

Not so easily ignored was the parlous condition of the Labor Government in the most populous state, New South Wales. Morris Iemma had won an election in his own right to succeed long serving Bob Carr, though the factionalised paralysis of the state Liberal Party (they had been taken over by religious fundamentalists at the time) and the less than impressive State Liberal Party Leader, Barry O’Farrell (universally known as “Fatty O’Barrel”), were parts of that story.

Then things turned rapidly to custard with a budgetary crisis and a party-rivening fight over the proposed privatisation of state-owned elements of the power generation industry. Iemma resigned and was briefly replaced by the first ever left faction leader in New South Wales, Nathan Rees.

The polls carried on their plunge, Rees signed his own death warrant by trying to ban political donations from property developers and the caucus elected Christina Keneally.

American-born (with an Aussie mum) she became the third Labor Premier in as many years. She sports a Paula Rebstock American accent, but support for the state government seemed to stabilise a little, though at sure-defeat levels. (O’Farrell had lost weight by now and the state Liberal Party fratricide had abated).

Though Australian voters are quite likely to vote differently at state and federal elections, state-based weakness can and do rub off in the Federal support for Labor, as Queensland had demonstrated not so many years before.

This is how a normally unremarkable state by-election became a proximate cause of Rudd’s downfall.

A week before Rudd’s departure, Labor lost the usually safe state seat of Penrith to the Liberals in a history making swing of 25%. Any fantasy of polls not reflecting reality was gone, and the interpretation that Rudd was an element in this rout gained currency.

Rudd’s early charmed run was undermined by three policy ‘errors’ which were at least, in part, “mistakes” in the eyes of the electorate because of poor communication.

First was a scandalous abuse by get rich quick artists of a recession busting programme to insulate houses. Little administrative thought went into this massive expenditure and young, untrained workers were sent into hot - fifty degree plus - roof spaces to staple through live electrical cables.

Deaths resulted, but Rudd seemed not to comprehend the growing public outrage and defended the former rock star and responsible minister, Peter Garrett.

Next came the abandonment of an emissions trading scheme, to which Rudd had firmly nailed his colours. This had been stuck in the upper house, where Labour lacked a majority and Rudd might have simply postponed the bill till a more receptive Senate was elected.

He chose not even to contemplate going to the country on the issue, a correct decision in the circumstances, but one that hit his effectiveness as a national leader hard, perhaps fatally.

He’d painted himself into a corner.

Last was the super tax on mining profits.

The Australian mining boom had seen vast profits in the extraction sector at the time the Australian treasury was running low due to the many stimulation programmes, which had included cash hand-outs to pensioners.

The temptation was too much and a super tax on mining profits was announced. Treasurer Swan was the architect of the new impost but the selling of it was left to Prime Minister Rudd. At this point the shortcomings of Rudd’s young and perpetually changing office became etched in bold relief.

Unexpected fish hooks rapidly emerged which had been poorly anticipated, if at all.

The Heather Simpson of Queensland didn’t have a Heather Simpson in Canberra.

Mining shares formed a large part of many ordinary Australians’ compulsory superannuation savings and the redoubtable Australian Workers Union had coverage of many jobs in the now squealing mining industry.

A simple impost on fat cats, many foreign-owned, became a final millstone around Rudd’s neck as the industry mounted a $100 million campaign against the new tax. Polls showed the federal government heading for trouble as Rudd’s support in the preferred Prime Minister stakes dwindled, and that of his Deputy, Julia Gillard, and opposition leader Tony Abbott, rose.

As the end neared the polls closed up a little, but special polling in marginal seats was more bad news for Kevin Rudd.

In the final week the AWU announced it had switched its support from Rudd to Gillard, pretty obviously signalling that Swan had pulled the rug on the PM.

For the ALP federal caucus, the deal was simple and clear. Rudd to go, Gillard for PM and Swan for the Deputy PM slot. The writing on the wall was clear and the graffiti artist was Wayne Swan.


Next: Gillard, Abbott, and the new leader’s election options.