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Julia Gillard on Kevin Rudd and the Leadership Change

Read Monday, 13 Oct 2014

Last week, we hosted an event with former prime minister Julia Gillard, in which she spoke candidly with Kate Langbroek about a range of issues. The two dominant subjects of reflection were the gender question and how that affected her performance (and experience) as prime minister, and how the leadership change from Kevin Rudd unfolded – and affected her prime ministership.

Today we publish part two of the edited extracts from the conversation: on Kevin Rudd and the leadership. Gillard talks about Rudd’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader, the lessons for modern leadership in general, and how you ‘never get to run the control test’ in politics.

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I did get Kevin in some ways very right and in some ways very wrong. Like all of us, in some ways Kevin’s a mix of strengths and weaknesses. And I talk in the book about the amazing strengths – his campaign effort in 2007. Talk about work ethic. We did amazing things in that campaign. And his leadership of ‘Kevin 07’ … many of the policies he did design personally. And no one will ever outwork him. He’s an incredibly hard-working person. So, incredible strengths, and he brought some of those into government. That work ethic got us through the global financial crisis. That model of leadership really worked then. But it didn’t work continuously. And it was falling apart for him in 2010.

A lot of us went to a lot of effort to shield people from that and to make sure that the government continued to function and that the stresses and strains and paralysis and some of Kevin’s difficulties (particularly the change of the opposition leader and the defeat of the CPRS and Copenhagen climate change negotiations letting the world down). He found mobilising incredibly hard in 2010 and we did shield people from that.

Lessons for leadership in the modern age

I think in many ways, if you take the personalities out of it, there are some lessons in here about leadership in the modern age. There are times of crisis where the command and control centralised model of leadership is still the one, you still need it. In our defence force for example, you still need that model. When people are out on operations you need to know who to look to, get the command from.

And during the global financial crisis when you were literally weighing up over a weekend: Could we face runs on our banks? (Not because there’s anything wrong with our banks – there’s nothing wrong with our banks. But because the world was in this psychosis flowing from the global financial crisis and the markets are in meltdown.) In that incredible moment of crisis, Kevin, who preferred a command-and-control model of leadership, really shone. But day-to-day, in the world in which we live, where everything’s too big, too complex for one person to continuously be in the centre of it, where power is distributed, where it’s not necessarily command and control (it’s collaboration, it’s teamwork, it’s welding people together through a common purpose) – Kevin couldn’t adjust to that speed.

And I don’t think he’d be the only person like that. I think there are a lot of people in a lot of organisations who’ve learned their leadership skills in an earlier age or have got that predisposition and are still trying to make it fit but it just doesn’t so much anymore.


‘In politics, you never get to run the control test’

I was never frank in the moment with the Australian people about why I ended up prime minister. And because I created a vacuum, using proxy forms of words like ‘a good government lost its way’, it was easy for people to insert their version into that vacuum. Faceless men and factional manoeuvring and all the rest of it. Like in every Labor election contest, of course there’s the involvement of factional players. But that wasn’t the reason here. This was about paralysis in government, breakdown in government, and ultimately my sense that the relationship between me and Kevin, which had helped me prop the whole thing up, had frayed. I never offered a complete explanation of that. It was my decision and I made that decision for two reasons: one of them political and one of them personal.

And the political reason was, do you really go to the Australian community and say: There are months of absolute crap here. Let me old it up to the light so you can see it as we’ve seen it. Now, if you wouldn’t mind going out in the next election and voting for us, I’d be very grateful. Is that the proposition you put?

The thing about politics is you never get to run the control test. So we can’t put ourselves back in 2010 and run the experiment.

The other reason is personal. Kevin was pretty miserable in those last few months as prime minister. He’d then taken one of the hardest blows you can take in life. I know what it’s like to get piffed out of the prime ministership; it’s not a good feeling. Do you add to that sense of hurt by then touching on all the sore spots and saying, this is why we did it? So, out of respect for him, out of a political analysis, we used a proxy form of words.

‘I hadn’t been stalking for the leadership’

But in terms of my ongoing reception by the Australian community, I think it’s partly how I got there, undoubtedly. When I got there, it was a big, big shock because I hadn’t been stalking for the leadership. So if you do the comparison with the last time federal leaders changed in office, from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating, there wasn’t the same sense of shock. No one would have woken up thinking: I’d never have imagined that’s going to happen! Paul Keating running for prime minister … I’d never have thought about that.

There also wasn’t the same withdrawal from the field. Bob Hawke, with very hurt feelings, basically took himself right out of politics. Kevin didn’t do that. There was this sense by the Canberra press gallery that they’d missed it all. That there was this vast conspiracy they hadn’t uncovered, which wasn’t true. So they always went looking for the next vast conspiracy even though they largely weren’t there.

‘A little bit of gender in it’

And I think there’s a little bit of gender in it. I wouldn’t want to over-put that.

The good woman/bad woman stereotypes. Lady Macbeth. It kept a prism over me. When Paul took over from Bob, you wouldn’t pick up your newspapers and routinely read: Prime Minister Paul Keating, who knifed Bob Hawke, today said about the economy, it’s a banana republic … You don’t pick up your newspapers or look at the media today (and admittedly it was a change in the leader of the opposition) and read: Tony Abbott, who only defeated Malcolm Turnbull by one vote, today said …

That stayed with me and stayed with me very heavily. And it did make a lot of the rest of it very difficult.

This is an edited extract of the conversation from last week’s event with Julia Gillard (interviewed by Kate Langbroek) at the Regent Theatre.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.