Kevin Rudd: The opposition leader who won't oppose


Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography

By Nicholas Stuart

Scribe Publications, 2007

288 pages, $32.95

"People have described me as an economic conservative. When it comes to public finance, it's a badge I wear with pride." — Kevin Rudd, May 2007.

Federal Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd has taken the ALP about as far to the right of politics as he can, leaving only a wafer-thin layer of difference between Labor and the Howard government.

The Labor Party — not to mention the entire union movement, a clear majority of workers and those who have suffered under the most reactionary Liberal regime in living memory — are desperate to get rid of the Howard government, after 11 years of ceaseless attacks. But Rudd's "me-too" strategy threatens to undermine the momentum of the popular campaign to eject PM John Howard and his cronies.

Rudd is an extremely conservative political figure who throughout his career has refused to challenge the status quo and sought to operate completely within the confines of the Australian capitalist state machine. From his initial career as a diplomat in China, to his stint as right-hand man for Queensland Labor Premier Wayne Goss in the 1990s, to his period as federal ALP spokesperson on foreign affairs, to his elevation to opposition leader in December, he has been careful not to rock the political boat.

In this "unauthorised biography" of Rudd by Canberra journalist Nicholas Stuart we get some inkling of the origins and development of Rudd, the would-be prime minister, but not a lot of analysis of his political views. Stuart explains that he was never able to obtain a formal interview with Rudd and so had to rely primarily on discussions with his Labor colleagues and other observers.

In Stuart's book, we gain an insight into the beginnings of the determined and driven person that Rudd became. His family were share farmers near Eumundi, on the Sunshine Coast hinterland. His father died in a car accident when he was only 11 years' old.

There has been some media controversy about whether his mother and family were evicted from the farm, or chose to leave. Whatever the exact circumstances, his political views began to be formed — as he explained in his first speech to federal parliament in November 1998 — by their being "left to rely on the bleak charity of the time".

Rudd began that same speech with the truism that, "Politics is about power". By this he was declaring his social-democratic creed that the only way to make changes in the system is for Labor to gain office and take a few rough edges off the harsh policies of the conservative Coalition.

Rudd's technocratic approach was apparent from the start of his appointment as Goss's chief of staff in 1988. His first move was to call meetings between then state opposition leader Goss and all the CEOs of the largest companies and business groups in Queensland.

When the ALP finally won government in Queensland in 1989, with the fall of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime in the aftermath of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Rudd quickly earned a reputation as the chief head-kicker of the new state government — acquiring the nicknames "the Mandarin" and "Dr Death" because he "put dreams to sleep".

In late 1995, the former Queensland Labor-left paper Keep Left described Rudd as "an extremely conservative fundamentalist Christian with no understanding of fundamental Labor principles". Failed ALP leader Mark Latham later slammed Rudd's propensity for self-publicity, describing him as a "crazy bastard" and "a terrible piece of work; addicted to the media and leaking".

Rudd became Labor spokesperson for foreign affairs in 2001, after undermining previous spokesperson Laurie Brereton — stressing the importance of Australia's support for Indonesia over East Timor. He later equivocated on leader Latham's commitment in 2004 to "withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Xmas".

After the disaster of the 2004 election loss, and the failure of Kim Beazley to revive the ALP's fortunes in the opinion polls during the next two years, Rudd finally took over the leadership — with the ALP left's Julia Gillard as deputy — at the end of 2006. After being elected Labor leader on December 2, 2006, Rudd declared that Australia had reached a "fork in the road".

Australia certainly is at a critical point in its history. And the defeat of the Howard government is crucial to prevent a disaster for the unions, Aborigines, refugees and all working people and the dispossessed. But Rudd is offering not a "fork in the road", but a "parallel highway" of neoliberalism — with some minor changes.

The policy retreats on Work Choices, "terror" laws, Howard's Aboriginal land grab in the Northern Territory and Tasmanian forest protection and the silence on the Dr Haneef case, all give a clear indication that, if Labor is elected later this year, it will usher in the most right-wing ALP government since James Scullin's in the early 1930s.

Nicholas Stuart's biography provides many details of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings within the ALP during the rise and rise of Rudd. But there is limited discussion of the policies and philosophy of the man who would be prime minister.

If Rudd and Labor can indeed defeat Howard — possibly the most reactionary and cunning conservative politician in our history — it will mean a turning point for the country. But the direction of the political road to be travelled will be determined not by Rudd's views, but by the strength of the mass movement for change.

[The writer is the Socialist Alliance candidate for the inner-Brisbane seat of Griffith, held by Kevin Rudd, in the forthcoming federal election.]