Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kevin Rudd biography, Nicholas Stuart

(Note: you can read my review of Robert Macklin's Kevin Rudd biography here. My essay In Search of Kevin Rudd is available here.)

With the election just over a month away, I thought I better put in some time reading up about Kevin Rudd. There are two biographies available on Heavvie kevvie. One by Nicholas Stuart, a former ABC journalist and now columnist for The Canberra Times. The other is by Robert Macklin. I’ve read the former, and am yet to pick up the latter from the Brunswick Library.

Biographies of political aspirants always have that strangely unfinished feel about them. Their subjects are necessarily works in progress, and so their biographies come across as premature. How many similar biographies of failed leaders now litter the dustbins of history?

Despite the drawbacks of the genre, Stuart Nicholson has put in a sterling effort and written a serious and intelligent biography of the young Rudd (he turned 50 this year.)

Nicholson ran into numerous troubles getting people to be interviewed on the record, and so most of the people providing comments on Rudd provide them on the condition of anonymity. Early in the biography we are told that Rudd had instructed people not to speak to Nicholson.

Nor would Rudd be interviewed for the book, then suddenly at the last minute, as the book was sent to the publisher, Rudd’s office called, flirting with the idea of now being interviewed. A game of cat and mouse ensued, but no interview with Rudd materialised. The author makes it quite clear by Rudd’s behaviour that he is very controlling of his media image and controlling of those around him. An ambiance of secrecy seems to surround Rudd.

The overall impression the biography gives of Rudd is of a very astute and hardworking man, someone who through sheer determination and a refusal to accept failure willed himself into a brilliant, shimmering success, this against a tough and mean upbringing.

Rudd quotes his father as always saying, ‘I’ve been battling’ when asked how he was. You wonder how much the father, and his attitude to life, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune he suffered, coloured the young Kevin Rudd’s attitude to life. How much did it drive him to be the success he later turned himself into?

As an example of Rudd’s extraordinary work ethic, he managed to turn his marginal seat of Griffith around by his relentless working of the electorate. In 1998 he won the seat by 3,858 votes. By the 2004, he romped it in on 13,898 votes. This stunning result was not handed on a silver platter; Rudd worked his tush off to achieve it.

Biographer Nicholas spends some time concentrating on key parts of the Rudd mythology. In the main these are the early death of his father, Bert, and his subsequent treatment at the Royal Brisbane Hospital (he blames the hospital for Bert’s death). Following his father’s death Rudd claims his mother was kicked off the farm that Bert had worked for 13 years, plunging the family into destitution.

These key events had an enormous impact on the young Rudd, and went a long way to forming what would later become the man and politician.

Yet memory is a strange thing, and emotion can and often does colour ‘the facts’ of what happened in our personal histories. This is a controversial point with Rudd. Sunday program journalist Ellen Fanning investigated Bert Rudd’s death, digging up the coroner’s report. The report however didn’t show up anything untoward. Rudd may have become a Labor politician, Fanning suggested, due to a misunderstanding.

Then Kerry Anne Walsh from the Sydney Sun-Herald investigated Rudd’s claim of being evicted from the farm by owner Aubrey Low. Low’s children hotly disputed Rudd’s eviction story, saying their father was a decent and honourable man.

In a bizarre twist, however, it was the story behind this story that became the real shocker. On 3 March 2007, Rudd’s uppity young press secretary rang Kerry Anne Walsh, swearing a blue streak and threatening with dire consequences should the story go to print. The story was held over until a week later, to double check the facts. Kevin Rudd himself now called the paper’s editor, Simon Dulhunty, and went ‘ballistic’, insisting the story was not to be run.

From this behaviour, it seems that Rudd is an enthusiastic media manipulator. For a man who is perceived as being a fastidious intellectual and academic, it interesting to note how out of control he is emotionally.

An even more intriguing story about Rudd and media manipulation came in April 2007, when the Sunrise program tried to stage a fake dawn service at the battlefield of Long Tan in Vietnam because it would better fit into their television schedules. The idea was junked after veterans voiced opposition. Rudd denied any involvement with the fake dawn service, then when it was revealed that his office indeed was aware of the plans, Rudd blamed his staff and ‘counselled’ them. Rudd soon ditched his regular segment on the show.

Nicholas does his best to balance the good with the bad in Rudd’s character. There’s a very telling quote from ANU professor Hugh White, about how good Rudd is with his family.

‘The relationship they had was very impressive. You really learn something about a person when you see them with their family. He related to his children, always dragging them into the discussion as active participants. Considering that our discussion was probably about strategic affairs – not one of the most interesting subject-areas for man people – it was fantastic to watch him challenging and encouraging them in conversation. He wasn’t condescending at all.’

And on Rudd’s knowledge of foreign affairs White had nothing but glowing praise: ‘His intellectual engagement was unparalleled.’

On the other hand, Queensland academic Scott Prasser is highly critical of Rudd’s time as key adviser to Wayne Goss, former Queensland Premier. After explaining that Rudd was the Mr Fix-It of the Goss government, the de-facto power behind the throne, Prasser notes ‘Executive government control, secrecy, and manipulation of appointment processes remained embedded during this time.’

There’s a fair amount of background noise in this biography of people who are no fan of Rudd. The general criticism is that he is an amoral hypocrite who treats people like garbage.

For my money Rudd comes across more and more like Howard every day. The first lines of his maiden speech, politics is about power, are horribly Machiavellian.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth says to the witches when they predict he will be Thane of Cawdor, why do you dress me in borrowed robes? Rather than asking why he is being dressed in borrowed robes, Rudd is rather stretching his arms out eagerly for them.

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