Title: Kevin Rudd – The PM Years
Author: Kevin Rudd
Publisher: Macmillan Publishers Australia
Reviewed by ALEX LYALL
In late-August last year, incredible things were happening across the ditch. Led by vengeful hard-right players like Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott, the Liberal Party voted to remove sitting PM Malcolm Turnbull in favour of Scott Morrison. It took place over one week and was tainted with claims of bullying and arm-twisting. Even for non-Australians, it was shocking to see such a blatant disregard for the unity of their party, and the respect that Prime Ministers should be afforded. Turnbull himself had taken the Prime Ministership from Abbott in 2015. Of course, Abbott only had the leadership of the Liberal Party in the first place because he had stolen it from Turnbull in opposition.
Evidently, Australian politics is a bloody rough business. Unfortunately, the premature removal of a Prime Minister is exactly the event central to Kevin Rudd’s second installment of his biography, The PM Years.
Kevin Rudd is the bloke who beat incumbent Aussie PM John Howard in 2007. It had taken the Labor Party 11 years to do so, themselves going through four leaders until they settled on Rudd (through a 2006 spill, no less). In 2010, Labor deputy leader Julia Gillard challenged Rudd for the leadership. She succeeded and became Australia’s first female Prime Minister.
If there is one takeaway from The PM Years, it is that coups hurt. When they are pushed for by a seemingly loyal deputy, they hurt even more. The PM Years, unsurprisingly, is a look at Rudd’s time as Prime Minister of Australia. While the coup became the defining incident of Rudd’s time in the top job, he also had his mind occupied by other matters. First of all, there was the growing threat of a worldwide recession. In New York, greedy financers were feeling the heat of years of dodgy loans. The Lehman Brothers had survived the Great Depression but could not withstand an avalanche of bad debt. As credit institutions crumbled globally, a newly elected Rudd had to act fast.
Australia became the only member of the OECD not to fall into recession. Rudd is not afraid to share this achievement, and perhaps justifiably. After all, it is no small feat saving your country from a historic global recession. Throw in the acceleration of asylum seekers, a proposed tax on the mega-powerful mining companies and a nationwide home-insulation programme and you have a few very busy years.
However, it is acting on climate change that proves to be the maker of Rudd. A lengthy portion of The PM Years describes the very arduous task of getting through his emissions scheme. First against the climate change denying Liberal Party, and then on the world stage. The 2010 Copenhagen Accord pitted Rudd against some of the world’s key players in order to get an all-encompassing climate change-arresting agreement. China and India said no.
Ironically, it is his own party’s opposition to the pursuit of the emissions trading scheme that buries Rudd. Behind closed doors, they tell him to drop it until much later. Rudd agrees. The desertion of the “great moral challenge of our generation” causes a drop in the polls. There is an election only a few months away. His colleagues sharpen their knives.
The PM Years is essential reading for the political nerd as it provides an essential perspective on the June 2010 “coup” (Rudd defends the use of this word). The tone of the writing would not be out of place in the retelling of a witnessed murder. Funnily enough, I read much of The PM Years under Christmas lights. The flash of them felt appropriate as if police cars had pulled up outside to investigate a crime next door. Rudd does well to convey the personal betrayal of it all. Reading it you can feel the walls close in as his colleagues rapidly desert him. The emotional toll of the event is not to be underestimated. As an example of the bitterness, Rudd has not spoken to his treasurer Wayne Swan in 8 years. His conversation with Swan as he declares his support for Gillard is the last time they will ever speak.
Remarkably, this was not the end of Rudd’s political career. He was appointed as Foreign Minister in the Gillard government and in the face disastrous polling ahead of the 2013 election, successfully challenges Gillard for the prime ministership, to hold the post once again.
A book home to the description of so many bitter political rivalries will have its fair share of character reviews. In this respect, The PM Years does not hold back. Gillard and Swan are thoroughly analysed: incompetent, unprincipled, opportunist. It’s all there. The harshest words are reserved for Rudd’s prime ministerial successor, Tony Abbott. It would not be recommended that he read this book.
The PM Years is also worthwhile as it serves as an academic assessment of foreign relations. Rudd, now serving as president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, has a first-class understanding of foreign affairs. In recounting his time both as prime minister and as foreign minister, Rudd’s initiatives pose important questions and points of debate: how much should Australasian politicians and business leaders engage with China? How should they deal with human rights and animal welfare abuses in our region?
Diplomacy should always be the first step. Rudd strenuously pushed for Australia to take Japan to the International Court of Justice for their whaling activities. Yet, he criticises Gillard’s decision to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia. It is the rashness factor that should be eliminated. Rudd stresses that every diplomatic measure had been investigated before legal action was taken against Japan. Gillard however, had not even discussed the matter of animal cruelty with the Indonesian president before she made her decision. Despite the deep exploration of global politics, New Zealand is barely mentioned at all in The PM Years. Not even Rudd’s visit to Christchurch in 2011 after our disastrous earthquake is discussed. Unfortunately, it reinforces the point that New Zealand spends much more time thinking of Australia than they do us. Conversely, that could also be a compliment.
Finally, there is the elephant in the room. What can be done about Australia’s massive turn-over rate of Prime Ministers? In 12 years, not one has finished their elected term. Rudd makes constructive suggestions. Doing so in an academic capacity, but also a personal one. The loss is still raw. What would his legacy have been without the carnivores and “faceless men” waiting in the wings?
For Rudd, it can only ever be a ‘what if?’
Obsessed with music since Green Day’s American Idiot. Until then he genuinely thought it was illegal to call anybody that word. ALEX LYALL studies Law at Canterbury so can confirm that actually, it is perfectly legal to do so.
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