Kevin Rudd: Architect of His Own Downfall

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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.

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.

As far back as 2011, Rudd set out a series of conditions for his return. It was clear he wanted to be vindicated and to prove the "faceless men" wrong; as foreign minister at the time, he wanted to underline his competence and success; he wanted to return to the leadership rather than launch a leadership challenge; he wanted Labor MPs to draft him as leader; he wanted guarantees he would not be undermined by his cabinet colleagues; and finally, based on the management of his support within the party and public appearances, he wanted to be Labor leader again only if there was a prospect of beating Abbott.

In 2011 these seemed like logical and reasonable political plans for an eventual return to the leadership to vindicate himself and restore Labor's fortunes.

The final point, that he would not take over unless he had a real prospect of winning, is the key to the failure of the rest.

Across time Rudd abandoned all these conditions because he became convinced he could win against Abbott.

Rudd lost his position as foreign minister as a result of his first hurried and failed challenge. That cost him the opportunity to demonstrate his competence in cabinet.

The process of building support after being thrashed by Gillard in the leadership ballot in March last year was slow and acrimonious. Whenever Rudd became leader again, he could not count on the confidence and support of senior colleagues, many of whom chose to resign rather than work with him. There was no seamless, competition-free drafting but a divisive, damaging series of feints and false starts that undermined Gillard and the Labor government Rudd was aiming to reclaim.

But the truly fatal shift was to fail to recognise that beyond a certain point a change of leadership back to Rudd could not make enough difference to restore trust in a divided and incompetent government.

Rudd's mistake was to believe that whenever he took over, he could carry the day. At the beginning of the campaign he believed his support in Queensland could lead to the recapture of five or six Coalition seats in that state, boosted by former premier Peter Beattie's candidacy in Forde; that it could offset losses elsewhere after holding in Tasmania; and that it could deliver Labor an unlikely but heroic victory.

The view was Rudd could turn it around with his handpicked team, headed by long-time Labor strategist Bruce Hawker, but it was self-delusion. Rudd only made things worse by concentrating on bringing down Gillard, instead of planning what to do when he got the rare chance of becoming Prime Minister for a second time.

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