Kevin Rudd: Architect of His Own Downfall

By Dennis Shanahan

Kevin Rudd's return to the Labor leadership has failed. In becoming Prime Minister a second time, Rudd has failed himself as an individual and damaged his place in history. He has failed the Labor Party through divisions that have worked against it, and he has failed to deliver a new hope to the nation.

This is as much a personal tragedy for Rudd, in the Shakespearean sense of contributing to his downfall, as it is a tragedy for the ALP.

Today's election result seems to have been set in stone for months, if not years, and the only vindication Rudd will be able to take from it will depend on an unprovable argument about whether he has done better than Julia Gillard would have in the number of Labor seats retained.

Rudd's colleagues, some facing the end of their parliamentary careers, are not consoled by indications of a last-minute revival, in the spirit of 1993, but instead are interpreting the lack of baseball bats as the inherent politeness of the Australian electorate and the fact voters overwhelmingly think Labor is going to lose.

Rudd has lost the campaign to Tony Abbott and with it the mantle of being a great campaigner, earned in his 2007 victory over John Howard.

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All the polling, public and private, showed Labor's primary vote lifted after Rudd took over in June, and his voter satisfaction was higher than those of his predecessor and his opponent.

After overtaking Gillard as preferred prime minister this year, Abbott fell behind Rudd. Yet, after an incredibly brief political honeymoon, Rudd's voter satisfaction numbers dipped suddenly and continued to decline, Labor's primary vote dropped from its post-Gillard peak back to just 33 per cent, and Abbott overtook Rudd as preferred prime minister. Part of the reason for this rapid decline in Rudd and the ALP's standing is that he seemed ill-prepared to become Prime Minister in the shade of an election campaign.

Labor's poor performance is also accounted for by a lack of carefully prepared policy, clearly defined political lines, a well organised leadership team and a co-ordinated effort from senior ministers. The thought bubbles of Northern Territory tax exclusion zones and shifting the naval dockyard from Sydney to Brisbane bore the hallmarks of a lack of preparation and consultation.

The failure to prosecute Labor's legitimate case against the Liberals for holding back their costings and having the issue blow up in the faces of Rudd, Chris Bowen and Finance Minister Penny Wong looked like a rushed amateur hour, worthy of an unsteady opposition.

Curiously, Rudd, who was Wayne Goss's right-hand man when Labor resumed government in Queensland in 1989, always swore he'd never be caught again as he was then, when all the concentration was on winning, rather than planning what to do once they won.

But there is a more fundamental reason for the failure of this campaign. Rudd didn't follow his own advice; he broke all his oaths on the leadership and was left unprepared because he became absorbed in the effort to become Prime Minister again, at the cost of following the key issues and debates. If Rudd had at least remained in cabinet as foreign minister, within reach of the throne, he would have been better placed to step back into the top job. He would have been able to leverage his public popularity into a better-priced commodity likelier to at least limit the damage to Labor's long-term prospects.

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