The euphoria of the election of Kevin Rudd as Australian prime minister in 2007, the freneticism of the following three years in power, the devastation of the 2010 coup, the desperation of his last-minute resurrection before this year’s poll — the rollercoaster ride of the Rudd era for the Australian Labor Party has come to an end with his tearful announcement on Wednesday night that he is to retire from politics.
Rudd was not of the normal Labor Party mould — he did not rise through the usual factional processes, he did not make policy through the normal mechanisms of compromise and attrition, and he did not aspire to caution or gradualism in either politics or ideas.
Rudd’s father died when he was 11 and the years that followed in which his mother struggled to raise the family — including a night they had to sleep in a car — had a formative effect on the former leader. He excelled at university, where he studied Chinese language and history, and was a diplomat and adviser to former Queensland premier Wayne Goss before entering federal parliament in 1998.
He seized office with an impatience and ambition very unlike the government of John Howard that came before him or the Tony Abbott government that came after Labor’s term.
His apology to the nation’s Indigenous stolen generations “made a mark in history,” according to the former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, and was also hailed by Abbott.
His 2020 summit sought to tap into the minds of the best and brightest in the land, his ratification of the Kyoto protocol symbolized a break with Australia’s previously skeptical climate change stance, and his neo-Keynesian response to the global financial crisis meant that Australia avoided the unemployment and social dislocation wrought by that in other countries, although he was criticized for spending too much. Rudd demanded a seat for Australia on the G20; he brokered a deal to try to keep the car industry going in Australia even as it collapsed around the world; and he reformed the health system.
However, he also elicited enormous ill feeling among colleagues for a highly dysfunctional leadership style and for stalling decisions. Most fatefully, he balked at calling a double dissolution election when the coalition blocked his emissions trading scheme — and then shelved the scheme in 2010, a complicated decision that translated to the public as a simple message of inauthenticity and opened the way for Abbott’s effective campaign against the policy.
The emissions trading scheme was eventually legislated by then-Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, and his resignation announcement come on the same day Abbott introduced legislation for its repeal.
The coup against Rudd in June 2010 was sudden and shocking and began a rift from which the Labor government never recovered. The manner of Gillard’s ascent meant Rudd and his supporters never accepted her leadership as legitimate. The way they sought his return to the job meant she and her backers were determined to resist his resurrection to the bitter end.
Rudd’s friend and confidant, Labor strategist Bruce Hawker, described Gillard and Rudd as the “yin and yang” of the Labor Party.
“The public respected him and the party loved her,” Hawker wrote in his diary-style account of Rudd’s return to power, The Rudd Rebellion: The Campaign to Save Labor.
“He could woo the electorate and she could pull the caucus in behind him ... Together they were indomitable, but apart they were vulnerable: he to the faction leaders and she to public opinion,” Hawker wrote.
Ultimately they each succumbed to that weakness and retired from the political stage.
In the end, Rudd returned with just a few months until he would have to call this year’s election and, once again frantic to make change, brought in rule changes to ensure factional leaders could never again treat a Labor leader as they had once treated him and policy changes on asylum and carbon pricing to try to stem Labor’s electoral losses.
He believes he “saved” Labor from a potentially worse defeat. He insisted he was retiring bearing malice to no one.
In his resignation speech Rudd said he would be working on an array of issues, including Indigenous recognition, organ donation, homelessness and foreign language learning. He intends to spend more time with his wife, Therese Rein, who runs a successful employment services company, and their three children and toddler granddaughter.
The speeches that followed his shock announcement — from all sides of the chamber — indicated that it may now be possible to see through the malice between the two leaders to assess the policy successes, and failures, of Labor’s term in office over which they presided.