Classic Ellis: The First Coming of Kevin Rudd

(From And So It Went)

Friday, 1st December, 2006, 12.05 a.m.

‘Rudd hasn’t got the numbers, has he?’

‘He’s got five votes, that’s all,’ said Lou, and Karen nodded. ‘I don’t know what this is all about.’

‘Kim’s confident, is he?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Quite confident,’ Karen added.

‘I’m very confident,’ Michael said firmly.

Were they cracking hardy? It didn’t seem so. Rudd was known as a loner, a leaker, a workaholic with no political friends and few caucus allies. Yet on Wednesday Phillip Adams at the Chifley play said Rudd had the numbers, and he’d had them for six months courtesy of Mark Arbib and was waiting for the moment to spring them. Bob Carr was at the play too and said it was a tragedy for Kim but it was probably on.

Two Fridays ago moreover at a journalists’ banquet in Glebe where guest speaker Rudd gave an uproariously funny speech that was roughly entitled ‘How I and Gareth Arrived at Long Last in North Korea and What Befell Us There’, a ‘dream ticket’ of Kevin and Julia was being mooted excitedly with pamphlets and ribbons to my disgust.

From Beazley’s office I rang Bill Shorten who was rumoured by some journalists to be about to overthrow Beazley eighteen months ago but who had loyally spoken up for him, and was a logical successor (in my view anyway) in five or six years to the Labor leadership, and Shorten said, ‘It doesn’t look that crash-hot, mate. He might survive but he was wrong to bring on the challenge on Monday. You should never put yourself out there. You make them come after you, challenge you, overthrow you. A critical two or three mightn’t have the stomach to do that.’

‘How do you read it?’

‘Well, the phones will be running hot.’

Kim that day addressed a massed rally of workers in Melbourne in a heroic, old-style way like Aneurin Bevan or John L. Lewis. ‘We will rip up these laws,’ he royally snarled, and they cheered in their trustful multitudes, and it might be his last hurrah. So late, so close, so stupid, so much to lose. Rudd is too clean, too suburban, too like an ad for Pelaco shirts in Women’s Weekly in 1958. He has no fire in his nostrils, meat on his bones.

After a few spare words of comfort and unbelief to Jim and Tim and Tim in Kim’s office I drove to Sydney. I rang Bruce Hawker on the way and asked if he was supporting Rudd and he said he was. ‘The punters have stopped listening to Kim, and it’s a pity,’ he assessed, ‘but it’s incurable.’

‘He doesn’t deserve this.’

‘Deserve’s got nothing to do with it, as Clint Eastwood winningly said in the movie. It’s the way things are.’

‘Will Rudd make it?’

‘I dunno. It’s close.’

Or words to that effect. I stopped at the Paragon for a charred steak and an adequate VB. The people have stopped listening to him, my son Tom had also been lately saying. He’d passed, perhaps, at fifty-eight that shadow-line of sexual confidence and moral energy that winners radiate. He’d lost weight, like a fool, and seemed nervous and flabby. He’d had his teeth capped and the dirty, gold-tooth smile – so appealing in its humility and self-mockery, in the jovial share-misery quality it added to his bigness, his meatiness, his wide shoulders and close-up confidential eloquence – had gone.

And of course he’d confessed, like a fool, to his harmless, irrelevant brain-leaking disease and everyone now suspected him of losing his mind. In June he’d mixed up McFarlane the Minister and McFarlane the banker. Two weeks ago in obedience to the woo-the-philistines policy of his younger staffers he commiserated with Rove McManus who’d lost his young wife but called him ‘Karl Rove’ – because, I guess, George Bush’s electoral puppeteer Karl Rove had in the mid-term elections lately lost his mandate and magic and many, many Republican seats.

These are the things that at fifty-eight you tend to begin to do. But they were enough, and Arbib pounced. He’s losing it, Arbib said. Labor’s on 54 but he has to go.

Sunday, 3rd December, 2006, 10.30 a.m.

‘What are the pros and cons of change?’ Michelle Grattan wrote yesterday in The Age.

‘Much of the argument being mounted in favour comes, obviously, from a desperate feeling that Labor can’t win. It is possible (but not inevitable) that it can’t win with either Beazley or Rudd – that Howard’s skills, a strong economy and the power of incumbency make victory a bridge too far. If this is the case, the question becomes: would Beazley or Rudd make up more ground?

‘The worst thing Labor could do is change to Rudd and have Labor go backwards, as happened in 2004, or make no net gains. That would burn the party and also burn someone who should, at some stage, have a bright leadership future.

‘Rudd and Gillard would have the attraction of fresh faces, a Christmas honeymoon, a flurry of publicity. People would be curious about how Rudd, who has not had a domestic portfolio, would handle areas other than foreign affairs. Gillard is lively, accessible talent.

‘But voters are a different kettle of fish from the media. They might find Beazley lacking but that doesn’t mean they’d entrust the country to those they felt they didn’t know sufficiently, especially when it is easy enough to stick with Howard.’

It doesn’t look too good. Gillard and Rudd appeared jointly on Meet the Press this morning looking like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby – not exactly a couple but adequate members of a weekend fling. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have the numbers. Rudd wouldn’t be moving if they didn’t have the numbers. He just wouldn’t. He’s too careful. Jenny Macklin was good and loyal on Insiders, arguing Kim’s experience, but I think it’s too late.

I should go down to Canberra tomorrow but I don’t want to. So much was lost when Robert McClelland emerged from the shower and changed his vote from Beazley to Latham to avert the spectacle of an abashed and blushful Labor Party narrowly choosing Beazley, as they would have, on a re-vote. For Beazley, aged then fifty-five, would have beaten Howard in 2004, like almost anybody. Latham, the addled bruiser, the womanising bully, the medicated, foul-mouthed breaker of an uppity cab-driver’s arm was bound to lose where no-one else was.. And so it goes that the best lack confidence (Beazley, Gore, Kerry) and the worst are full of passionate intensity (Bush, Latham, Blair, Howard) and prevail. Gillard organised the numbers for hLatham and I will not forgive her.

Monday, 4th December, 2006, 5 p.m.

Kim lost 49 to 39 and arrived in the press conference room looking officerly and stoic. As he tends to do in hours of defeat he gave a fine speech and during it seemed, as he always does, like the best Australian Prime Minister we never had.

‘This is my last press conference as leader of the Labor Party, I suppose,’ he said. ‘My commission is terminated; and caucus, as you know, decided to change leadership to Kevin Rudd.

‘I said to the caucus today that the Labor Party needed to get in behind Kevin Rudd and give him the best chance he possibly can of becoming the next prime minister of this country. Kevin is a very able man, a very intelligent man, with a very wide base of knowledge and an absolute determination to do the right thing for the Australian people. He will be a very good leader of the Australian Labor Party. He will take us to victory at the next election.

‘I wanted to stay and finish the job, but that was not to be. We will win the next election. The public mood has changed. The public has come to understand that John Howard is no longer on their side. There is major product differentiation now in policy between the Australian Labor Party and our political opponents.

‘I take some pride in that. In my many years too long in Opposition, there has never been such a clear-cut division between the parties, and it’s never been so clear that the Australian Labor Party is on the side of middle Australia . . .

‘I want to thank my caucus colleagues. I’ve been in the caucus a long time and I’ve always enjoyed the company of my caucus friends. They are a very good bunch and they deserve the opportunities that government will bring. I want to thank the party organisation too. They are an effective party organisation, as evidenced by the fact that we govern in every state.

‘Finally I thank Susie and my family. Family is everything.’

Family is everything. Here he paused, and tears came. He had heard just a few minutes before that his mentally disabled brother David had died round sunrise this morning. The news was kept from him by his parents, his sister, his wife, his daughters until the vote was taken, a vote they knew he’d win.

Asked if he’d stay on he said, ‘For me to do anything further in the Australian Labor Party, I would say would be Lazarus with a quadruple bypass. And so the time has come for me to move on. I think the time has come for the Labor party, having made a decisive decision to turn to a new generation, to turn to a new generation. And I have no part in that.’

‘Have you any regrets?’

‘Regrets? After twenty-five years in politics? I’d go for twenty-five years in politics without a single regret? Only about four thousand three hundred and thirty-two of them!’

Jenny Macklin, it turned out, could have stayed on as Deputy but chose not to stand. Asked about this, he said: ‘I want to say about Jenny, you could not want a more loyal deputy. She has been an absolute tower of strength for me; a very small tower, but nevertheless a very solid tower of strength for me.’

Soon he was on a plane, flying through five hours of turbulence, calm, remorse and remembrance to the corpse of the brother who adored him and the steel-blue gaze of the father, the impatient demanding father who disdained him, who thought him a blundering incompetent and a waste; the longest pilgrimage , the longest Trail of Tears he could imagine journeying down. No-one deserves luck as bad as this, I thought. No-one.

I sent Rudd a text message saying, roughly, Congratulations I suppose you will do well but I beg you offer Kim defence or there may be another dead Beazley before year’s end. I got a prompt answer, Thanks Bob. K., its frigidity somehow unmistakeable.

There will be a time to mourn for Beazley, I suppose, a man of Churchillian dimension and Shakespearian misfortune, and time to wonder how and why those wrinkle-free cardboard cut-outs Rudd and Gillard, as free of significant feature as the cartoon figures in South Park, have surfed the wave of destiny and not he. Rudd would have lost his seat had Kim not campaigned so valiantly and well in 2001; up against a world war and a media that kept him on page 17 till election day he nonetheless got Labor’s vote up from 40 to 49, winning the Debate and all the days he had to work with, including the day of the sinking of the SIEV-X; and so Kevin survived, survived to challenge and replace him.

I still can’t get my head around it.

At nine I rang Shorten and I said, ‘If he’d done as you said and not brought on the vote, the news of his brother’s death would have come through this morning and they wouldn’t have dared bring it on today, in this, the hour of his grief.’

‘Probably,’ Shorten said. ‘But they would have in February. They were determined, mate. And they had the numbers.’

‘How do you feel?’

‘Mate: we are where we are.’

I heard the phrase and rolled it over in my mind. It defined him somehow.

‘What does that mean?’ I asked.

‘He’s the leader. He stays the leader. It’s how we do things. It’s called the Labor Party. We do the process. We stand by the outcome. We fight the election. We probably win. We probably win now.’

‘And not before?’

‘And probably not before.’

Wednesday, 20th December, 2008, 2.30 a.m.

To my Chifley play A Local Man with Bob Hawke and Blanche, and a hug, some tears and red wines in the Ensemble foyer afterwards. Both were surprised by Chif’s desolate childhood, as Gough had been two days before. I mentioned the coincidence that Kim Beazley had been in the Kurrajong, a few doors down the hall on the night Chif died, being baby-sat with his sister Merrilyn by Mrs Calwell. Bob said, ‘Is that a fact?’ and shook his head.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I thought it was too good to be true.’

‘It’s been a tragedy, an absolute tragedy for Kim. He was like a son to me.’ Bob shook his head and looked thoughtful.

‘Were you surprised by what happened?’

‘No, no. Disappointed. Upset. Not surprised. I can see what they were thinking. As in my case. There’s nothing you can do when it happens. You can yield to bitterness or you can get on with your life.’

‘Will Rudd do well, do you think?’

‘I think he might. The ladies like him.’ He looked at me with sardonic alertness. ‘And that’s a plus. And the Christians of the western suburbs always have. And he’s got a rich wife at his back, with millions, millions she made on her own. And if you’ve got that, you’ve got . . . a big advantage. You’ve got . . . freedom, permission to pursue your . . . political career in the way you can’t if you’re the breadwinner. You can travel, entertain, make contacts. Achieve a circle of confederates. And so prevail.’

Or words to that effect. I’ve been amazed by Bob’s generosity and forgiveness (he wrote, for instance, a plug for the play) after what I said about him in Goodbye Jerusalem. ‘Life’s too short,’ he said, ‘for grudges.’ I fear Kim won’t accept his fate as gracefully. I fear it will simmer, and rankle, and it may do for him.

To have come so close. And to have been, as it turns out, one more victim, however distant, of Karl Rove. Bob hugged Tony Barry and wept a bit and then went with Blanche to their car. Being Prime Minister has its hardships, I reflected, but being an ex-Prime Minister is tougher. Keating, depressive and resisting all comfort, grieving for Annita, insulted, insulted by Howard’s persistent smug victories, is in a bad way I hear. Whitlam is fine, bobbing up at many first nights emitting zingers and flying all over the country to attend significant funerals. Fraser too in his way, a kind of hovering conscience these days, an eight-foot Jiminy Cricket on the shoulder of the Liberal Party.

But I do fear for Kim. We will all of us always owe him everything, as Godard said of Orson Welles, because he saved the party from splitting, from disintegrating, from fucking itself altogether. In a year when there were eight Liberal governments and Labor held power by only one seat in New South Wales he kept the party together, he kept the show on the road, and within thirty months he won more votes than Howard, half a million more votes than Howard, in the great comeback of 1998. And he counts himself a failure, an anticlimax, a dud, and, agreeing with his fierce unforgiving old father, a waste of genes.

I’ll send him a Christmas card, our great lost leader, but he’ll never believe it.

Leave a comment ?


  1. A beautifully written bromance Mr Ellis, but a query or two on content and language.

    “Jenny Macklin, it turned out, could have stayed on as Deputy but chose not to stand” is not the way it was. Macklin was there only while the two left factions – Ferguson and Albanese – disagreed over Gillard’s ascension. Macklin didn’t stay by choice, Latham asked her to step down and so did Beazley. She refused and it was only when the collective Left tapped her on the shoulder did she relinquish.

    Macklin also needs to take flack for the fall of Latham. She was acting leader when Latham was on sick leave and what did she do? She took leave herself and left Chris Evans as Labor leader, a job that proved beyond his capabilities. Macklin was MIA for much of the Beazley>Latham leadership period.

    Also, why should Beazley have lied to the Australian people about his health? You wrote “And of course he’d confessed, like a fool, to his harmless, irrelevant brain-leaking disease and everyone now suspected him of losing his mind.” Should he have pretended he was well when he was lying prone at home in Perth under doctor’s orders? Beazley’s honesty and candor is the hallmark of a great leader, his openness is a characteristic to be admired, and not be called a ‘fool’ for telling the public what many in the Press Gallery already knew.

    Finally, if I was Mr LathamI would sue you for writing this: “Latham, the addled bruiser, the womanising bully, the medicated, foul-mouthed breaker of an uppity cab-driver’s arm was bound to lose where no-one else was…”

    In your language, can you prove Mr Latham was medicated? What medication? For what conditions? Name the pills and what they were for? His pancreatitis was it, or are you privileged to his medicine draw? And ‘womanising bully’ – who did he sleep with and bully? Have you names or just the usual innuendo and scuttlebutt. Was he a womanizer like another MP you laud and claim as a close friend, whose reputation in Kingston as a pants man is legendary?

    I tire of the Latham bashing by those who were too cowed and feeble to ever say these things when he was Labor leader but in hindsight claim knowledge of a range of medical and emotional issues.

    As I was once taught, name, rank and serial number will suffice here.

    • If you imply by ‘bromance’ that I fucked Beazley or he me I will see you in court. Please explain yourself, and this bizarre and sinister new term.

      I heard otherwise about Macklin, that she was so upset about Beazley’s usurpation and his exit from public life that she removed herself in fellow-feeling from contention. But you may be right.

      As to Kim not saying his brain was leaking it would come under ‘the need to know’ in my view. FDR was not photographed once in a wheelchair in eighteen years of high office, and only thrice on crutches. Churchill concealed his two heart attacks, Pompidou his terminal disease, Nixon his alcoholism, Kennedy his non-specific urethritis, Hawke his alcoholic depressions, Keating his crippling tinnitus, Howard his profound deafness, Rudd his Asperger’s Syndrome, and so on. Should they have revealed these things and so lost office? I don’t think so. Nor should Kim. For, as it proved, he did.

      • As to Latham’s medication it was in Carr’s office, where I worked and he had once worked, as you might say, ‘common knowledge’. I’m not sure who you mean by ‘the Kingston pants-man’. There are so many.

        I have defended Latham a lot in my books and columns against the charge especially that he behaved brutishly towards Gillard by asking her, an old, close friend and former employee, a question on a street-walk. He was a better leader than Rudd or Crean and was, as you say, retrospectively vilified.

        But I stand by my belief that the few bad things that were known about him (the taxi-cab fight, the harassed females, the resentful first wife) made him unelectable from Opposition. And his defeat by one changed vote of Beazley, a likely immortal, was an international catastrophe.

        And perhaps you disagree,

      • Bromance - a comment made in respect and jest, implying a fondness for one of the same sex. However, the mental image of you and Mr Beazley having sex has left me with an ill feeling and and in need of a few belters.

        As to the owning up of health conditions, I do disagree. Imagine if this had come out during a campaign, or used by the opposition to paint Mr Beazley as a man concealing an illness which could affect his ability to be PM?

        The other cases you cite belong in a different era, without 24 media news cycles and the like.

        Do you not think Mr Beazley’s honest and integrity would have let him hide this? For me, it enhanced his reputation and showed why he would have been one of our finest ever prime ministers.

        A sad to this country that he never got that opportunity, but I believe it is not too late and his time has passed.

        • If it had come out during a campaign, he may not have won office. But Latham did not win office anyway, in part because of such revelations, and Beazley had the condition, or a foretaste of it, already, and was concealing it. And would have done better than Latham in 2004 whatever happened.

          Or perhaps you disagree.

  2. Beautiful. Tragic. Fitting for our current environment.

    Although I did not think so at the time i now realise that he is our long lost leader.

    I fantasize occasionally during these tumultuous days what it would have been like had Kim somehow, against the odds, won the 2001 election. Think of basically a decade of ALP rule with the strong economy gathering pace because of the property market and mining boom mark 1(possibly sucumbing to the GFC electorally, who knows).

    There would have been differences, I imagine, in health or education or social security programs. Fewer tax cuts but a somewhat broader social democracy. Kim would have followed America into Afghanistan but not Iraq.

    I really think that people who think there are not sufficient diffences between the major parties (a sentiment I sometimes agree with) should think on what the last decade would have been like had Kim rather than Howard, had been PM. In my mind it puts the argument of political convergence to rest.

  3. I felt that I shared every twist of the knife with you. Beazley was definitely the best Prime Minister we never had.

    I see now where you have been coming from lately, and you have my heartfelt sympathy.

    But I fear that I must point out that Beazley and the Camelot that might have been are gone with the wind.


  4. Beazley was too large a man to allow himself to be shoehorned by Howard.
    but managed it anyway……..

    And all 47,000 seats he won back for Labor meant for naught in light of Howard’s 6 remaining years of political prepotency.

    this sentimentalising serves no purpose.

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