Nicola Roxon, who was a senior minister under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard during Labor’s tumultuous six years in office, gave the John Button Lecture tonight in Melbourne.
It was in part a considered analysis of organisational dysfunction, the role of government, and political strategy. And it was also an epic bucket-tipping exercise, with Kevin Rudd copping most of the contents of the bucket.
The zinger being quoted everywhere is: “Removing Kevin was an act of political bastardry, for sure. But this act of political bastardy was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to so many people.”
Dogs in the street know about this side of Rudd’s character now, but Roxon makes the point that in switching to Gillard the Labor party should have immediately and forcefully explained the extent of the chaos that was life under Rudd’s prime ministership.
Here are some of the key excerpts where Roxon (colourfully) shared her insights. The full speech is here at the ABC.
When Kevin was flashed across the TVs icily ignoring Kristina Keneally in health reform negotiations, it cost us an awful lot to recover from and actually gave NSW the upper hand for the first time. Disparagingly calling her “Bambi” behind closed doors was pretty silly when she was whip-smart and went on to run rings around us at the final COAG negotiating table. As a result, Kevin conceded more to NSW in hospital beds at the expense of money set aside for mental health. As was predictable, mental health became a thorn in our side later on, and in the 2010 campaign was the major health issue that weakened our otherwise great story.
The Garden Island announcement during the 2013 campaign underscored that this lesson had not been learned and we lost a day or two of the campaign needlessly.
Even if you accept the method of his removal was unfair – nothing excuses persistently destabilising and leaking against your own team during an election, or as a senior minister or as a backbencher.
If you are part of a Labor team, and care about its mission, you put that before your own hurt or ambition.
No one can any longer be in any doubt how trenchantly and continuously this occurred at both Kevin’s hand and his supporters – caucus knows it and the media knows it. Although his removal was dramatic and brutal, it was his refusal to recover with dignity, to rise above the treatment he was meted out (as has for eternity been required of others) and failure to claim his place as a constructive elder statesman that, in my view, showed his true nature.
The pointless work
Kevin had a terrible habit of attending meetings not having read detailed papers that he had commissioned at the last meeting – often very complex ones, at very short notice. For example, I remember a meeting only days before Christmas 2009 when a total rewrite of a health policy was demanded. Despite many, many hours of work into the night, I do not believe that paper was ever – even to do this day – read by the prime minister, let alone read over a Christmas holiday he had already ruined for others.
Meetings that never happened
Once the hospital we were scheduled to visit the following day was changed en route in the PM’s plane. We went instead to a city hundreds of kilometres away, and had to pay for over 20 hotel rooms near the original hospital as we cancelled too late for a refund.
Several times we were called to last minute meetings on Sundays at the Lodge – to work through a roadblock. Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard, senior staff and I would be told on Friday or Saturday to be at a meeting in Canberra the next day. On one occasion staff spent that whole day on the lawn playing handball, not allowed in, but not allowed to go home to rest, or be with partners and family. More than one relationship was destroyed by this relentless disorganisation.
The failure to explain
I think we had all the right reasons to act, but I think we were clumsy and short sighted in the way we did it. We didn’t explain the dysfunctional decision-making and lack of strategy I’ve focused on a lot tonight. We didn’t talk about his rudeness, or contempt for staff and disrespect for public servants (a measure of this was public servants saving up briefs to send to the PM’s office as soon as Kevin went overseas because they got quicker and more thoughtful responses from Julia as acting PM).
Removing Kevin was an act of political bastardry, for sure. But this act of political bastardy was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to so many people.
Even though the reasons were there to justify our action, I don’t think we handled it properly at the time, and Labor has paid a very high price for this mishandling ever since.
If Kevin had been an employee, he would have won his unfair dismissal case. Not because there wasn’t cause to dismiss him, but because we didn’t explain the reasons properly to him, let alone to the voting public.
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