Classic Ellis: The Last Hours of Rudd, PM

(The following first appeared in Unleashed on Wednesday 23rd June 2010 at 4 pm, about three hours before the meeting which resulted in Rudd’s usurpation by Gillard. It can also be read in context in Suddenly, Last Winter, my account of those tremendous hours and the election and the hung parliament that followed.)

The last time you had jet-lag in a faraway country it was pretty ghastly, wasn’t it. You were suddenly awake at 3am. You couldn’t make a decision. You could barely remember your name, or how many children you had, or whether or not you were fighting with your wife. You spent loads of money on taxis rather than reading a map and walking. You spent a fortune on inappropriate gifts, and things you didn’t need. Your mental powers were a mess and hourly getting worse.

You felt, in short, the way Kevin Rudd feels all the time. He’s up till 3am, and back at work at 6am. He attends important meetings in Sydney, Tokyo and Copenhagen all within two days. He’s at a night function in Perth and, four hours later, enduring a live interview with Fran Kelly. Unable to bear his schedule his staff are leaving him and his ministers are finding it harder and harder to arrange a meeting with him and many of his recent decisions seem crazy, and the cause is obvious. Massive, cumulative sleeplessness and the panic that follows it, the denial, confusion and low-level paranoia that comes with the territory.

Many, many politicians have suffered this condition, this feeling that all is lost and a pointless waste or a gathering conspiracy of confident foes. One leader I know would get by on two hours’ sleep when in an election campaign and seem unhinged till mid-morning, chewing out his staff and jumping at shadows. The critical restorative sleep we all get, between 6am and 7am, he never got. He had to be at a strategy meeting at 6.45am. He had to be there, lest the campaign go to hell in a hand basket in his absence. He couldn’t afford to sleep. He had to be there.

The 24-hour news cycle is at the heart of this, and it’s killing our democracy. Richo, Dawkins, Keating, Kernot, Evans, Gallop, Carr, Bracks, Beattie, Beazley, Stott Despoja, Refshauge, Iemma, McMullan, Debus, Duncan Kerr, Reith, Nelson, Costello and Minchin are all still young enough to be in politics but they are gone or going from it, and their talent is not being replaced. In part, I believe, because of this tyranny of sleeplessness and pep-pills and mutual suspicion, and a generation of drongos is seizing their preselections and bringing us to ruin.

A leader’s Press Officer now has to be reading the papers at 4.30am, and the leader in make-up for the Today show at 6.30am. He may then be at a business breakfast attempting genial oratory at 8am and at a caucus meeting at 9.30am for an hour of punitive admonition. His brain arrives at 11am, there’s a press conference at noon, a lunch with the President of Pilau at 12.30pm and Question Time at 2pm. At 4pm he is on a plane to Perth, reading for five hours of scary turbulence position papers on Climate Change. On touchdown at Perth it is only, locally, 7pm and he has five hours more of genial oratory, ethnic dancing, listening to accented speeches and murmuring pleasantly to strangers before hitting a hotel bed at what in his mind is 2am. At 2.30am his phone rings and there’s a crisis. Peter Garrett is threatening to resign.

In all this he is supposed to be running the country and he can’t. If he is Rudd, he is keen that no-one else will - unlike Hawke he won’t delegate to the most talented ministry since Federation - and so the sleeplessness-tsunami mounts and floods through his mind. And so the roof-batts crisis occurs, and the Climate Change back-flip, and the fight with the mining giants whom he hadn’t thought to warn of the coming tax hike, and the curious decision to abuse Tony Abbott for being an Iron Man instead of thanking him for setting an example to an obese nation, and the even stranger decision to use public money (wickedly, he once said) for Labor Party ads on television, to counter the ads put out by those he forgot to tell what he was doing. And putting a pacifist in charge of the army, and a man who loves boat people in charge of locking them up, a childless woman in charge of motherhood, and so on.

None of these things he would have done had he been awake. And he hasn’t been awake for two years.

He thinks he’s been awake, and on top of his material. But it’s so easy when you’re tired out of your mind, gulping coffee and chewing iced Vo-vos and letting nobody over 30 near you, demanding endless enquiries into the possibility of holding further enquiries into the pressing need for additional procrastination, to imagine you’re doing your job when you aren’t. You’re merely trying to stay awake, and you needn’t. And it’s a pity.

Part of the problem is how big Australia is. From Sydney to Perth is the equivalent of London to Tehran and Stephen Smith, Gary Gray, Kim Beazley and Wilson Tuckey were therefore also jet-lagged, up at 5am to be interviewed live on Insiders. Part of the problem was the adversarial style of interviewing, begun as courteous aggressiveness by Robin Day and uplifted into bear-baiting by the Fox News monsters and Jana Wendt and Steve Price.

Asked when you’re bone-tired if you’re going to resign increases sleeplessness as a rule, and worsens your incompetence under interrogation the following dawn. Will there come a time when in the interests of your party you decide to bite the bullet and resign? How do you answer a question like that? You can’t. And you toss and turn all night.

Is there a solution to all this? Replacing Rudd with Tanner wouldn’t hurt. Some haven’t yet answered the pressing question of what, thus far, has Julia done right? Nothing that comes to mind. Swanny would be all right, and Maxine an excellent Deputy Prime Minister. Debus would be really good. Beazley could be called back, and slotted into McMullan’s vacated seat; or Faulkner, slotted into Debus’s, and a late election held in April. Or Shorten, the government’s best communicator. Or Combet, its coolest head. There are possibilities a party bent on losing won’t contemplate, preferring denial, defeat and rancorous autopsy, and it’s a pity.

The larger question, though, of sleepless politicians, and therefore burnt-out politicians and policy incompetence and the current ruinous way of doing things, needs a whole change of culture I fear. Moving Fran Kelly to an 8am start. Having a siesta at 2pm and Question Time at 4pm. Requiring by law that no staff meeting occurs before 8.30am. The compulsory pre-recording, at 6pm, of Q&A and Lateline at 7pm. Requiring by law that all politicians get one weekend off in four. Four-year terms and independence for Western Australia.

Because we’re haemorrhaging our best political talent and it won’t come back, at any price, into a democracy now in serious danger of swallowing itself whole and vanishing.

It’s injurious to their health, and they know it, and they flee it as soon as they can, and our nation is in trouble, deep trouble, because of it.

And it’s a pity.

  1. Much of what you said then still applies today. The 24 hour news cycle and what has recently been called the hungry beast are largely to blame for the current miasma. Both sides of politics try desperately to stay “on message”, despite the media wanting to follow the latest stunt, the latest fracas, the latest scandal.

    The result is that the politicians seem disconnected and appear evasive, wanting to go back to “the message” and ignore the questions as best they may.


  2. Brian Eno, Stewart Brand and others involved in the Long Now Foundation see the 24hr news cycle, the accompanying attention deficit policy disorder and spectacle soundbite politics as a fundamental threat to western democracies.

    I think they’re right, and I like the symbolic response of the Clock of The Long Now; if only for the beautiful bell album it inspired in Eno.

    I think you’re right on this too, Bob. I don’t know what the fix is though. Thoughts?

    Speaking of bells, Alain Corbin has written a wonderful book on Village Bells in 19th Century France. He argues that the village bell ordered the time, leisure, cosmology and work of those living within earshot. The parallels with Murdoch, and now Reinhardt are obvious.

    Bolt knows how to ring a bloody bell. So do Jones and Hadley. I wish we had some decent bell ringers.

    Jon Stewart can play a carrillon that rings loud and true. Anyone else? Anyone?

  3. I love it. I loved it in the book, and I loved it again just now. Only you could write a sentence such as ‘Four-year terms and independence for Western Australia’ at the end of a par like that. Yay!

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