Kevin Rudd's new memoir The PM Years looks back to an eventful, transformative period in Australian politics.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on October 30, 2018

After defeating John Howard, Australia’s second longest serving leader, in a landslide election victory in 2007, Rudd set to work on an ambitious policy agenda, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and making a historic apology to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generations.

While many world economies were hobbled by the effects of the global financial crisis, Australia avoided going into recession and Rudd enjoyed unprecedented popularity during the first two years as national leader.

Yet by 2010, some within the Labor Party had lost faith with Rudd’s leadership and he was ousted by his colleagues in a hugely contentious episode. Coincidentally or not, the change in leadership ushered in an unusually tumultuous time in Australian politics. Rudd himself returned as leader in 2013 and was defeated by Tony Abbott in the election that year before Abbott was outed by Malcolm Turnbull, who in turn was unseated by Scott Morrison.

Rudd’s memoir reflects on this era of instability and recounts his time as leader in detailed and forthright fashion, covering what he terms “the coup that killed Australian politics” as well as his dealings with world leaders on climate change and the global financial crisis, the leadup to the apology, his work around tax reform and more.

Rudd talked to The CEO Magazine about his new book.

The CEO Magazine: You discuss Rupert Murdoch’s influence on both Australian and International politics in the book. Is that something you fully grasped before becoming Prime Minister?

Kevin Rudd: Not as fully as it became apparent afterwards. If you start travelling around the world more as I then did, you discover how significant Murdoch’s influence is in American politics through his ownership of Fox, the major cable television network of the right wing in American politics.

Then you go to the United Kingdom, where what Murdoch says in The Sun (and, in those days, The News of the World), sometimes does a lot to shape the daily news agenda.

Of course, in this country, with 70% of the print mastheads, he is a dominant force. But I didn’t realise how dominant and, frankly, how interfering he would become, particularly in the debate that unfolded over the National Broadband Network, a major investment in Australia’s future infrastructure.

You see the ‘cult of the opinion poll’ as a real issue in contemporary politics. Do you see any way around the problem?

One of the ways around dealing with the short-term politics that comes about as a result of the cult of the opinion poll is to change the rules about political parties so they can’t simply switch political leaders on a whim.

In the past, we had rules both in the Labor and Liberal parties which basically enabled anyone within the parliamentary party to say ‘OK, I’m going to demand a ballot tomorrow’. If you, for example, are in receipt of a series of bad opinion polls over several weeks then it’s very easy for parliamentary parties to get a dose of ‘the panics’. Then having a dose of the panics, it’s easy for the flip the switch into absolute panic and change the leader rather than seeing national leadership and politics as they should see it, which is as a long-term marathon.

So, what I did was change the rules of the Labor party after 2013. In fact, I made it my precondition of my returning to the Office as Prime Minister, to make those midnight coups impossible under our party’s rules. It’s now an extensive, difficult, three-month process involving both a 50% vote of parliamentary members of the party as well as 50% of the entire 50,000 strong national membership of the ALP.

You can’t simply do it (instantly) which is what happened in the stampede to change the leader in my case back in June 2010.

The Liberals have unfortunately not done that within their own party. As you’ve seen recently with the latest flip of the Liberal party leadership, it’s easy for the factional powerbrokers to say ‘the leader’s unpopular, we’re going to lose the election, we must change’. The Liberals need to change their rules the way we changed ours to restabilise politics and to get away from the cult of the opinion poll.

It’s been pointed out that since Twitter became popular, no Australian Prime Minister has served out a full term. Do you see any connection there?

I think it’s a combination of factors. One, you have the rise of the Young Labor and Young Liberal generation who are all taught, in their early twenties, that the way to get ahead is to kill the person ahead of you. That’s not healthy. These folks are now in senior positions within those parties 10 or 20 years on.

Then you have the power of the factional powerbrokers and the cult of opinion polls.

Then you have what I describe as the distorting effect of the Murdoch mainstream media, in particular, their ideological view of the world, which is far right, reinforced by the aggressive pursuit of Murdoch’s commercial interests.

You also have the general reorganisation of news through the social media explosion which means that there is often no longer a common factual basis on which the national discourse on our country’s future can be conducted.

Rudd and Obama

You write that you “instinctively liked, admired and respected” Obama. What was it about him that inspired such confidence?

Anyone with any familiarity with American politics knows how bloody difficult it is for an African-American to prevail. The entrenched racism of that country is a sight to behold. For someone to come through, take the nomination of the Democratic Party and then to prevail in a general election against the Republicans, was a feat of enormous political achievement in itself given the racism of the country back to the days of the Civil War and before.

So, what is enormously appealing about the guy is simply the sheer political determination to have prevailed despite all of that.

Moving to the G20 summit of 2009, you had some strong views about how the world should proceed in the wake of the GFC and how it could avoid the lessons of 1933. Where did you develop these ideas about fiscal policy?

Well, I’ve always been a keen student of political economic history. I’d read my histories of the twenties and thirties carefully. I’d read the response to it and multiple biographies of John Maynard Keynes, the different analyses of what happened in the First World War and the Great Depression and certainly Keynes’ writing on the general theory in 1936.

So, those sort of readings in political and economic history and theory were helpful when we confronted another great systemic crisis in 2008-09-10. I had read a lot of people like Adam Smith but also the 20th-century distortions of Smith through the likes of (F.A) Hayek and (Milton) Friedman and what’s generally called neoliberalism and the Chicago School.

That helped me understand the framework within which these ideological debates on the future of the economy were conducted. So, the usefulness of let’s call it ‘historical and theoretical frameworks’ in dealing with immediate practical challenges can’t be overestimated.

Rudd and Bush

Do you feel the isolationism of the US in the Trump era can be easily reversed?

If you simply look at the President’s campaign slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ but on top of that a greater concept of Fortress America and also questioning America’s traditional patterns of global engagement and automatic support for US allies around the world, you’ve got to conclude from the facts alone that the risk exists.

But, secondly, we shouldn’t make a simple judgement about America’s future based on one half of one presidency. The Amercian body politic, like the American economy, has an extraordinary capacity to bounce back and self-adjust. So, we’ll see what happens in the mid-terms and what happens when we get to the next Presidential election.

In terms of policy, is not being able to push through a carbon emissions scheme through your biggest regret?

I think that’s true. We tried to legislate the carbon price twice in 2009. It was defeated twice by a coalition of political convenience between the Liberal Party on the one hand and the Green Party on the other.

Had the Green Party had any backbone and principle at that time, then we would be ten years already into the normal adjustment of the Australian economy into a floating carbon price and the country would be infinitely better for that having occurred.

Instead, ten years later, we still see the rolling politicisation of the carbon pricing debate. I think it’s a debate that should have been resolved a long time ago. So, I regret that we weren’t able to ultimately prevail but the parliament, or maybe the Green Party and the Liberals, had a different view.

Header image credit: Alpha