Kevin Rudd is back. Last week he was blitzing the country with a whirlwind book tour, having flown in from New York where he continues his post-prime-ministerial life as President of the Asia Society. He is promoting volume one of his autobiography entitled Not for the Faint-hearted. I caught up with him at Australian National University where he met in conversation with Stan Grant in front of a large crowd.
The evening was replete with policy wonkery, self-mockery, anecdotes reflecting poorly on political foes and well on political allies, profound abstract insights and homely truths such as ‘We Australians are at our best when contributing to the world rather than cutting ourselves off from the world’; ‘We need to be more than China’s quarry and Japan’s beach’; and ‘The Chinese would be surprised if we didn’t stand up for where we come from’ — the ‘where’ being the world of the Judaeo Christian ethic, universal values, the Enlightenment, rationalism and human rights.
The book is dedicated to Rudd’s wife and children with deep gratitude ‘for a lifetime of care, love and support’ and ‘without whose love, care and nurture, my life would be small indeed’. Many times, key political decisions were made with Thérèse and Kevin joined for a tea ceremony on their four-poster bed with children Jessica, Nicholas and Marcus. The author acknowledges his debt to the editors ‘who had to deal with the full, daily and detailed dimensions of the author’s predisposition for bucketloads of programmatic specificity’.
Returning to Australia when Malcolm Turnbull’s hold on power is looking tenuous and when Labor in opposition is starting to look a credible alternative, Rudd hopes that his account of political ascendancy ‘will encourage the next generation of progressive political leaders to don the armour, enter the arena and write the next chapter in our history — a history not just for the few, but the many’.
Rudd and I have been friends for more than 25 years. In the early days, our relationship hit a rocky patch when I had the temerity to tell him that his proposal for prompt legislation for Aboriginal land rights in Queensland by the Goss government in 1991 would not be well received unless there were appropriate consultations with Indigenous communities. Having received advice from Aboriginal leaders like Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson, he had advised the premier Wayne Goss to legislate promptly so as to avoid political haemorrhaging.
Goss and Rudd led the Labor Party in Queensland espousing land rights prior to Mabo, only to find that the Aborigines knocked down the gates of parliament house protesting the lack of consultation. I said, ‘I told you so.’ There followed a period of no-speaks. But then Kevin came back to me, and we cemented the friendship.
I tell the story now, only to make the point that in politics there are often tensions, misunderstandings and wildly differing perspectives. But for anyone to survive and thrive in public life, reaching the prime ministership, not once but twice, there is a need for strong personal supports and the capacity to transcend misunderstandings.
Rudd has produced a 674-page account of his life, but only up to his first election as prime minister. Now that takes some chutzpah. Despite the detail in the book, he deals with the 1991 Queensland land rights exercise with one economical sentence: ‘On social reform, we introduced, amid considerable controversy, Queensland’s first land rights legislation for Aboriginal people.’ Within two years, Goss and Rudd were to find themselves on the rough end of the pineapple when dealing with Paul Keating over native title in the wake of the Mabo decision.
Rudd describes how Keating who ‘seemed blithely unaware of all these inner-urban sensitivities asked Goss how we were both now going to deal with the blackfellas’. Keating had been taken aback earlier when ‘he’d offered the Aboriginal delegation visiting his office in Canberra what he thought was a reasonable approach to dealing with the challenges of the Mabo decision. He said Pearson had flatly rejected him.’
In one of his earlier meetings with Keating, Rudd was told, ‘Kevvie, in politics we don’t have a lot of time to play with. We are designed as fighter aircraft. We are here to find the target, do the deed, and get the hell out of there if you can. We are not Lancaster bombers, lumbering along, as if they had all the time in the world, waiting to be shot down.’ Political autobiographies are inevitably filled with personal reminiscences about all manner of meetings which add colour and flavour to the already accepted public narrative.
The ogre in the book is John Howard. Rudd holds Howard personally responsible for the attacks on Thérèse’s decency and integrity as an employer in the lead up to the 2007 election. The nastiness of Australian politics is summed up in Rudd’s conclusion: ‘On Thérèse, Howard’s was cowardly behaviour at its worst. It is a blemish on his character. And it should not be forgotten. If only because this same ruthlessness remains a core part of the conservative DNA to this day, to be used again, whenever and wherever they deem it necessary to delegitimise their Labor opponent. And in Howard’s case, all beneath the smiling veneer of what passes for polite society and middle-class respectability.’
After all these years you can still feel the searing hurt. Rudd told Stan Grant that his mother was a great model for him urging him to throw all life’s hurts into the forgettery. No forgettery seems big enough for our public figures.
Rudd’s strongest critique of Howard relates to the 2003 Iraq War. The chapters ‘Howard’s folly: The Invasion of Iraq’ and ‘All the Way with the USA’ are the most heavily footnoted in the book. Rudd says, ‘It is high time Howard was held to account for his role in Bush’s Coalition of the Willing, which produced the rolling disaster that has become Iraq. This is important not simply as a matter of historical record, but as a cautionary tale for subsequent Australian governments not to be led by the nose by future American administrators into other such follies.’
With no Chilcot Inquiry, we Australians have not made a full reckoning of our involvement in Iraq and the consequences. Rudd is scathing of Howard’s ‘arrogance and hubris’ and claims that by the change of government in 2007, much of the government’s ‘deceit, negligence and rank hypocrisy’ had been laid bare.
There are of course detailed, gruesome and humorous accounts of every change in Labor leadership from Beazley to Crean to Latham and back to Beazley. The assessments of Rudd’s colleagues are blunt. Beazley ‘sent the party to sleep. He was like a warm pair of fluffy slippers. But worse than that, he didn’t want to remind the party, or the country, of the deep social and economic dislocations what were the inevitable consequence of the hard-fought gains of the policy reforms’ of the Hawke/Keating era. Ouch!
Australian politics has become a deadly sport. And perhaps it was always so. Rudd lived by the sword in this volume, and we await the next volume to see how he died by the sword. Through it all, he has proudly professed his Christian faith. He went onto the public field to play this deadly game in order to make a difference. It’s his family and his faith which have sustained him every step of the way. His family has paid a price and he feels that deeply. And he knows it’s deeply unfashionable to be a political leader professing any sort of religious faith: ‘the view in polite post-Christian society is that religious believers are emotionally fragile, scientifically illiterate and morally hypocritical. But apart from all that, we believers can be perfectly pleasant, although totally delusional, human beings.’ Classic Rudd!
In May 2005, he agreed to be interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on the ABC religious affairs program Compass. He told Doogue: ‘I’m doing what I think at this time in Australia’s political history is right. And that is to engage this debate about faith, values and politics and not to vacate the ground to the other mob; for those on the political right who believe that faith is their natural preserve. I don’t intend to stand around and let that happen.’
This has been a constant refrain from Rudd in public life. Back when he was campaigning for Wayne Goss in 1989, the conservatives started a scare campaign that Labor would decriminalise homosexuality. Goss, an atheist, was surprised when Rudd phoned an Anglican clergyman to enlist his support in taking on this ‘fundamentalist ratbaggery’. Rudd explains: ‘As I put down the phone, there was total silence from my atheist mates gathered around the conference table. “Why should the conservatives have a monopoly on God?” I said. “In this election, Jesus was not a paid-up conservative voter. Jesus was either with us, or at least a swinging voter.”‘
Having worshipped more with the Anglicans than with the Catholics once he married Thérèse, Rudd says his experience of Christianity ‘has had very little to do with denominations of any form’. Rudd has exemplified nationally and internationally that ‘there is a space for faith, tempered by reason, in the public place, and that those of us who are of faith should unapologetically engage in the public debate, in particular arguing the case for those without a political voice of their own, be they the poor of the human family or the distress of the planet itself.’
He acknowledges ‘the simple truth’ that ‘Christianity no longer represents a shared epistemology for the common deliberations of a secular parliament, if in fact it ever did’. He concedes that ‘the ethical views I might derive from faith must equally be explicable in the absence of some mystical recourse to divine revelation’.
For those who are not faint-hearted and who enjoy blood sports, progressive politics is about experience, reflection and action, and not ‘a permanent intellectual seminar, or a rolling café society conversation about what others should be doing’. This book is a call to arms in the Labor Party, and it might even inspire some who vote for other parties as well.
Frank Brennan SJ is Chief Executive Officer, Catholic Social Services
First published in Eureka Street, 29 October 2017.