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History Is Written By The Winners

This time last year, Kevin Rudd still had seven months left as Prime Minister and Malcolm Turnbull had nearly a fortnight before he lost the Liberal leadership.

Rudd-GillardA lot has happened since.

By any measure, it has been a big political year. The rise of Tony Abbott and the dumping of Rudd book-end a remarkable period in Australian politics. The ascent of Julia Gillard is a mere five months old. The inconclusive election that produced a minority government took place just three months ago this weekend.

It is surely too soon to write the definitive history of this period but it’s being written anyway.

One account, “The Party Thieves”, has been written by the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy. Another, “Confessions of a Faceless Man”, has been penned in diary form by Paul Howes, head of the Australian Workers’ Union.

There’s remarkable agreement between these two about what happened.

They concur that Kevin Rudd was, as Cassidy puts it, “autocratic, exclusive, disrespectful and, at times, flat-out abusive”. As Howes leaves The Lodge on one occasion, a colleague suggests that now they’re gone Rudd is having the room disinfected.

Cassidy’s book contains a section titled “The Rise and Fall” which catalogues a long list of grievances against Rudd. It is the best part of the book. The chapter on Rudd’s temper is damning. Another, “Tyrannosaurus Rudd”, paints a picture of a “Cabinet withered” and a Caucus that became “quickly irrelevant”.

Cassidy provides an insight into the Rudd government that leaves you gasping for more. The great unanswered question is whether anyone ever challenged Rudd’s dominance of the decision-making process. Cassidy pinpoints many grievances that evolved into visceral hatred and contempt for Rudd but offers no convincing answer to the question of how a ministry of 30 people, few of whom are shrinking violets, allowed this to happen. Is ministerial leather so cheaply sold?

Some Labor Party complainants, notably Gary Gray and Michael Danby, are brave enough to put their names to their excoriating analysis of the dysfunction wrought by Rudd. Others are quoted anonymously by Cassidy in a book which contains not a single footnote and lacks an index.

Cassidy’s concept of the party thieves is built around the idea that the Labor and Liberal party rooms took their stolen parties back from Rudd and Turnbull, leaders who were “in” but not truly “of” their party. Whilst he barely deals with Turnbull, he firmly establishes the case against Rudd.

But think back to what we knew this time a year ago. Better still, consult the newspaper archives. Ask yourself what we know now that we didn’t know then.

For example, what did we know about Kevin Rudd’s leadership style? Did we know about the seething resentment building up inside the Labor caucus and the ministry amongst people shunned, sidelined and disregarded by the former Prime Minister?

There were scattered stories about how the Rudd Cabinet operated but it was some months before a couple of journalists gave us a glimpse beneath the hood of the Rudd project. Publicly, though, Rudd was riding high, overwhelmingly popular, polling well. Nerdy, driven, but seemingly in control.

If the Rudd leadership was as bad as it is portrayed in this book, it is remarkable that those outside the political process only heard about it after the event.

For me, Cassidy’s book, and other commentary since the election, is a measure of how little we learn from daily political news coverage. Amidst the welter of words, political talk shows and commentary, the real story of what happens in politics goes mainly untold.

Cassidy devotes one chapter to each of the five weeks of the election campaign. It’s profoundly disappointing to read, a catalogue of media interviews and stage-managed events. This is what Gillard said on “Lateline”. How did Abbott respond on “The 7.30 Report”? Wasn’t that a clever line on “QandA”? Look, someone said something else on Sky News. When the story falters, Cassidy enlivens it with anecdotes from his days with Bob Hawke. A story about Gordon Brown’s stumbles on the UK election trail pops up. Padding.

To be fair to Cassidy, he has not had the time to dig into the election campaigns and produce a revelatory account of what happened. But Paul Howes’s book is subtitled “Inside Campaign 2010”. Surely it offers a glimpse of the real election?

Well, not really…

Howes’s account of the election campaign is one dominated by his relentless race through the studios of radio and television stations. His curious relationship with Michael Kroger features prominently, as the two of them meet repeatedly on different programs to commentate on the election. Together, they pandered to the now insatiable appetite of programs that want a “Mr ALP” and a “Mr Liberal” to shout at each other in the name of balance.

I was an audience witness to this media scramble one day during the election. The two appeared on breakfast television and morning radio (it was MTR, so I was probably the only person listening as I drove to an appointment). Howes was on Sky News in the afternoon and then back in the ABC studio with Kroger for “Lateline”.

By the end of the day, the two had practised and perfected their lines and ripostes. Like an old married couple who can anticipate each other’s thoughts, they went through the motions of debate and analysis but the whole thing was a charade.

Out in the electorate, are we to believe that voters were consuming this nonsense, let alone being influenced by it? Media election coverage watched or listened to by a miniscule proportion of the population doesn’t deserve to be the basis of books about election campaigns.

All the same, Howes is an engaging, if unadorned, writer. There are many humanising glimpses of the father and husband. There is much humour. The catalogue of shadow ministerial titles for Scott Morrison raises a smile. He is honest enough to criticise his own side over the Citizens’ Assembly although much of the book attacks Rudd and Latham for their part in the near-fatal outcome. Howes presents himself as only peripherally involved in Labor’s election strategising but he does seem to have a lot of conversations with Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib.

It is his preoccupation with Mark Latham that jumps out from much of the book. The former Labor leader’s interventions in the campaign are constantly raked over.

At one stage, Howes wonders whether he is developing an “unhealthy obsession” with Latham – “deranged” and “rat” are only two of many epithets thrown Latham’s way – and resolves later that “this is the last time I will talk about Mark Latham”. The very next diary entry begins: “You know who I don’t like? Mark Latham.”

There are snippets of an election campaign from the inside. Howes rightly lauds the party workers who toil behind the scenes, doing their bit for parliamentary democracy. But there is little in the way of detail about what these people do.

Howes and Cassidy agree on one thing: that it was the leaks that cost the ALP outright victory. In a cogently argued final chapter titled “It was the leaks, stupid”, Cassidy asserts that without the leaks Labor’s self-inflicted mistakes would only have “reduced a comfortable win to a narrow one”.

Howes argues that “it was a far better result than what would have happened had the leadership change not taken place”.

And this is where I have a real problem with both books. Without necessarily disputing the reported – but unpublished – internal ALP polling that indicated a loss of 23 seats immediately after the leaks, I remain unconvinced that it’s as simple as this.

Remember that this argument is persistently put by ALP operatives with jobs and reputations to protect – witness Karl Bitar’s address to the National Press Club last week. The emerging official history is truly a winner’s history.

Consider the chronology. Gillard became Prime Minister on June 24. On June 27, she denounced Rudd’s “big Australia”, sending clear messages about immigration and population. On July 2, she announced the compromise deal over the mining tax. On July 6, she announced the East Timorese off-shore processing plan for asylum seekers, a plan that immediately began falling apart.

Around this time, my recollection is of a definite turnaround in perceptions of Gillard. The confidence and hope of late June was quickly replaced with doubts about what she stood for.

Laurie Oakes revealed the first leak about a supposed deal between Gillard and Rudd at the National Press Club on July 15. Two days later, Gillard called the election. On July 23, she announced her climate change policy, with the now unlamented Citizens’ Assembly policy. Labor and Green voters were appalled. Gillard began to be ridiculed.

Without doubt, the second round of leaks on July 28, the ones concerning Gillard’s attitude to pension increases and paid parental leave, were damaging. But clear doubts about Gillard were already being voiced. Across a range of policy positions, she was alienating voters on the left and the right.

“The Real Julia” was unveiled on August 2. There was talk of the leaks in media and political circles but out in the electorate I suspect other issues were at play. It should also be remembered that this was an electorate that didn’t really understand why Rudd had been replaced. Doubt mounted on doubt.

Mark Latham’s intervention came on August 7 and continued sporadically after that, but it hasn’t yet been convincingly explained why this was so harmful to the ALP’s chances. If anything, Gillard’s reactions and her pithy putdown on “QandA” could be said to have turned the occasion to her advantage.

We can never know but the “leaks and Latham” argument seems to me to be too simplistic and convenient as an explanation of Labor’s loss of support. Equally, the argument that it would have been worse under Rudd is a self-serving one for most of its proponents.

Without question, a favour is paid to the voting public through the publication of these books. Contemporary accounts beyond the newspaper clippings are important. Cassidy and Howes don’t pretend to be offering a definitive history.

The danger lies in the ready acceptance of the interpretations they offer.

One day, the professional historians will provide a more complete and detached view that won’t be dominated by the survivors and the winners.

In the meantime, there are other people we need to hear from.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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