The Rudd-Gillard Years According to Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly is the editor-at-large at the Australian newspaper. I don’t really know what that means exactly, sounds like a position made up just to make some really good journo feel good about themselves, but I digress. He is also the author of several highly regarded books on different periods in modern Australian political history.

In many ways Kelly is the pre-eminent political commentator in the country. His opinions are highly regarded. His take on issues is gleamed from more than forty years of experience in the industry. He is respected across the political divide. Although these days more so on the right than on the left, who see Kelly as a cultural warrior against them.

Nonetheless I find Kelly a brilliant and informative writer. His book the March of Patriots about Paul Keating and John Howard was brilliant. In it he argued that there was more that unified than divided Howard and Keating. Describing them as patriots who although disagreeing on cultural/tribal issues, their economic policies were mostly in sync.

His analysis of Keating is fascinating but already done to death; there is greater documentation and analysis of Labor politicians than their Liberal counterparts. Kelly’s analysis is distinguished by his detailed account of the early Howard years. It is fair, by no means uncritical, but provides a centre ground from the right wing criticisms that Howard engaged in middle-class welfare, and left wing criticism that he was a Neo-Liberal conservative determined to return Australia to the 1950s.

His analysis explained the reasons why Howard did what he did and left the reader to decide on them. He described the Howard government as misunderstood and went about clearing up misconceptions. I can’t explain the effect that had on me as a reader. Howard was elevated greatly in my eyes, and remains high in my opinions, as he is with a large number of Australians. In fact many of us probably wish we hadn’t kicked him out in the first place, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

His new book Triumph and Demise examines the six years of Labor under Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and then Kevin Rudd again. He describes it as the ‘Broken Promise of a Labor generation’.

Kelly writes with such intensity, it often feels like a thriller. It is fast-paced, never dull, but often depressing. Kelly lays bare the incompetence of Rudd and Gillard as leader. From the chaos to process that Rudd created, to the poor political judgements of Julia Gillard. He also details how Abbott rose to the leadership of the Liberals by accident and the momentous nature of his rise.

There is much of contention in the Rudd-Gillard years. Kelly although presenting his opinions strongly, permits the opinions of a great deal others to permeate the story. They differ greatly, ensuring that on a number of issues there is no uniform historical judgement. Then again, Labor lost office not a year ago. In time this may change.

Kelly’s works often shape politics around personality. He argues that the differences between Rudd and Gillard weren’t on policy, but rather on personality. Rudd was religious, married, conservative socially. Gillard was an atheist, unmarried, childless. They were very different people. Rudd was an outsider who won the support of his party through his popularity with the people. Gillard was an insider, with a strong union background that had a strong base of support in the party. Together they were formidable. Apart they had severe defects.

He juxtaposes this with the leadership showdown between Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. This was about a genuine policy difference. Turnbull wanting to support the ETS, a policy he believed in and had advocated. Abbott constantly changing his mind, before finally deciding to oppose the ETS, when it became obvious the conservative side of politics was firmly against it and that the Coalition was under threat of being ripped apart by it. The Nationals would not have supported it. Abbott won the dispute and the rest, as they say, is history.

Kelly forcefully argues that the removal of Rudd as Prime Minister was the ‘death warrant’ for Labor. By removing Rudd and then never explaining it to a public that was still largely unaware of the archaic nature of his leadership, Gillard was unable to recover.

I don’t necessarily agree with that. Although the removal provided many challenges, Gillard could have recovered from them had she not made several catastrophic errors in the 12 months following her ascension.

In my view, it was Gillard’s decision to enter into an agreement with the Greens that signed the death warrant for Labor. It forced her to back-flip on an election promise and placed her legitimacy into question once again.

One of the more sensational revelations comes from Gillard, who claims that in the lead up to the leadership challenge she firmed the view that Rudd was mentally unable to do the job, claiming he was depressed.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to discussing the political culture in the country. Kelly is rather pessimistic about it, believing it beholden to focus and interest groups, incapable of reform and susceptible to scare campaigns (GST, Work Choices, Carbon Tax). He is unsure if Abbott is capable of arresting this decline, and the early signs aren’t encouraging (the budget).

He also examines the existential challenges facing the Labor party. They are losing their working class base to the Liberals, and losing their progressive base to the Greens. Finding it very difficult to maintain a balance between the two. He doesn’t say they can’t survive into the future, but recommends they break union ties and push a certain new identity into the future. It is too confused.

The story Kelly writes is brilliant. At times he is prone to hyperbole, which can be a turn off, but adds to the readability of the work. A lot is omitted from this review. However, if you want to understand the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, how they rose, and why they fell, this is the book.

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