The Zipping Point: How K. Rudd Fought Julia (and Lost)

So, K. Rudd (as he calls himself) has tried to wrest his old job back and lost, with just 31 votes to Julia Gillard’s 71. He has, apparently, resigned himself to ‘zipping off’ the national stage.

It’s a result that will surprise no one; his popularity rests pretty much entirely with the Australian public, who weren’t the ones voting. And within the labor caucus, who did vote, he never had the numbers. ‘This confirms that Julia Gillard can count and Kevin Rudd can’t,’ Mark Latham quipped to Sky News.

But what happens next? And – perhaps just as importantly – what the hell just happened?

Amid the maelstrom of media coverage over the past week, there were some gems that stood out for their insight.

‘A weird guy and a failing prime minister’

David Marr delivered a devastating psychological portrait of the then-prime minister in his Quarterly Essay, Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd, which warned that his colleagues saw him as ‘a weird guy and a failing prime minister’.

David Marr: The euphemisms Gillard used to shield Rudd after she deposed him as leader 'left her cruelly exposed'.

David Marr: The euphemisms Gillard used to shield Rudd after she deposed him as leader 'left her cruelly exposed'.

Last week, Marr wrote that Gillard and her supporters had been far from callous in the way they dispatched of him back in 2010; on the contrary, they were too kind.

‘Had Gillard said then, ‘I did everything I could to salvage the situation … to try to get the government functioning’, we would have liked her more and doubted her less. The narrative would have been about rescue not sabotage. The euphemisms she used to shield Rudd left her cruelly exposed. But their tact was Rudd’s cover.’

Indeed, at her press conference today, Gillard acknowledged as much, admitting that she and her colleagues should have explained more about why they deposed Rudd at the time.

The problem with political journalism

Michael Gawenda, former editor of the Age, wrote on The Drum that many of the journalists covering the Rudd-Gillard fight are ‘in essence, lying to us’ by not disclosing that they have been briefed by Rudd and his supporters over the past six months or more. It’s part of the problem with the conventions of journalism: it’s customary not to reveal one’s sources, but what happens when the identity of those sources is an essential part of the story; one that remains hidden?

Michael Gawenda says, 'At his two bizarre press announcements in Washington, Kevin Rudd spoke as if he was a total innocent, as pure as the driven snow.

Michael Gawenda says, 'At his two bizarre press announcements in Washington, Kevin Rudd spoke as if he was a total innocent, as pure as the driven snow.

Rudd and his supporters deny that they have run any campaign of destabilisation. Rudd and his supporters deny that they have regularly briefed journalists, editors and senior media executives. At his two bizarre press announcements in Washington, Kevin Rudd spoke as if he was a total innocent, as pure as the driven snow, morally virginal, having never ever been involved in the grubby politics of undermining, white-anting, wounding and ultimately destroying an opponent.

And reporters, some of whom knew that none of this was true, reported it all without comment, without letting us know that they knew, personally, that it was untrue.

Politics as sport

With that in mind, it’s worth reflecting on Lindsay Tanner’s arguments in last year’s Battlelines that our journalism – and our politics – is failing us, with its focus on politics-as-sport, the details of political battles, and emphasis on packaging candidates as celebrities. He spoke to George Megalogenis about it for the Wheeler Centre last year.

‘My Dad works for me’

And speaking of candidates as celebrities, it’s been interesting to watch the Rudd family’s call to the public to influence the leadership vote. Jessica Rudd, capitalising on her status as a novelist (and Q&A guest) wrote an article for former magazine editor Mia Freedman’s popular website Mamamia, in a direct appeal to her huge female readership. Jessica Rudd also appeared on Channel 10’s The Project – a popular news source for Gen Y and Gen X – with a similar message.

Jessica Rudd urged voters to lobby their MPs about the spill: 'You might think Julia Gillard is the ant's pants. Fab. Say it. You might think my Dad is ace. Cool. Write it.'

Jessica Rudd urged voters to lobby their MPs about the spill: 'You might think Julia Gillard is the ant's pants. Fab. Say it. You might think my Dad is ace. Cool. Write it.'

Rudd wrote on Mamamia:

We are their employers. My Dad works for me. I often remind him of that. He is my local member and I helped put him there. I walked into a church hall and in the privacy of a polling booth I put a one next to his name.

Tweet something. Rant on Facebook. Put a video on YouTube. Put a sign on your front fence. Have a chat with your neighbour. Tell your friends. Email your local MP. Ring them up. Stop them at the newsagent and make them listen. Call your local radio station. Have a rally. Vote in an online poll. Write a song about it. Get on Mamamia and say, ‘OMG she’s just saying that because she’s KRudd’s daughter.’

Rudd as television character

Why is Rudd – so reviled by his party – so popular with the public? Michael Duffy has an interesting theory. ‘He reminds them of people – or characters – they see often on the tellie, and they like that. Such creations are far more warm and interesting, after all, than real politicians.’

He says Rudd’s constructed persona, while a liability in real life, is an asset in the media. ‘I can’t recall a prime minister less capable of speaking simple English than Rudd. His attempts at the vernacular – the Vegemite and the sauce bottle – are gruesome. Often his sentences sound like they were constructed in some other language and turned into English by a cheap translation app.’

Michael Duffy: 'I can't recall a prime minister less capable of speaking simple English than Rudd.'

Michael Duffy: 'I can't recall a prime minister less capable of speaking simple English than Rudd.'

In an article for The Punch, Laurie Oakes shared the account of a Rudd government insider who said that Rudd was driven more by popularity – and honing his media persona – than by policy, despite popular perception of him as a policy wonk. This ‘was something we never, ever saw behind closed doors. His instinct was invariably for the politics of a policy problem. His most common put-down of officials and his own policy wonks was “That’s a fine idea, but how do I explain it on Today Tonight?”.’

Gillard and the female factor

And finally, as we leave Rudd behind and focus on Julia Gillard, it’s worth looking at Anne Summers’ article from yesterday’s Sunday Age, discussing the impact of gender on how she is viewed as prime minister.

‘From the moment she became leader in June 2012, she has run into the view that “being prime minister is a man’s job”,’ wrote Summers, who concludes that ‘this attitude underpins much of the hostile commentary on Gillard’. Summers canvasses a range of female politicians from both sides for their opinions, from Nicola Roxon to Julie Bishop.

Anne Summers: 'Gillard is the first [woman] to run the entire country; she is in a totally different league, and one that evidently many of us are not entirely comfortable with.'

Anne Summers: 'Gillard is the first [woman] to run the entire country; she is in a totally different league, and one that evidently many of us are not entirely comfortable with.'

And for anyone who doubts that Gillard’s gender colours the political commentary, the Age has handily demonstrated Summers' point today, with an article that likens the split with Rudd to a divorce, headlined, ‘How a fine political romance ended in messy divorce’, and the first line: ‘Every first date is awkward, and it was no different when Kevin met Julia.’

Awkward indeed.

For some background viewing on the events of the past week, you might like to browse the following Wheeler Centre events:

David Marr talking to George Meglogenis about Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd.

Lindsay Tanner talking to George Megalogenis about Dumbing Down Democracy and Lindsay’s book Sideshow.

George Megalogenis talking to Lindsay Tanner about George’s Quarterly Essay, Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era.

And Michael Gawenda will be talking about ‘The Journalist as Betrayer’ at the Wheeler Centre for this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox, this Thursday 1 March at 12.45pm-1.15pm. Free.

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