I feel a little sorry for Julia Gillard. Sure, that might seem generous towards someone who’s shown enormous ruthlessness in recent weeks even by Labor’s lofty standards, but part of me can’t help but think she’s on a pretty rough wicket. Ever since she became leader, her attempt to define and differentiate herself have been consistently undermined by blasts from the past – and literally blasts, in most cases. The campaign where our first female PM had hoped to define herself has turned into Australian politics’ biggest ever reunion tour.
Gillard arrived in the job urgently needing to smooth over the leadership tensions, with most of Queensland in high dudgeon. The last thing she needed was Bob and Blanche’s publicity machine to go into overdrive, with a fresh biography and a docu-drama recreating Labor’s last Prime Ministerial assassination. It must have been hard to find nice things to say when she launched the book – perhaps she borrowed some of Blanche’s?
Immediately afterwards came a predictably furious response from Paul Keating, which while amusing, achieved very little – the two leaders’ achievements will forever be as closely linked as The Captain and Tenille’s.
Now, John Howard has power-walked back onto the front page, appearing alongside his onetime protegé to revenge himself on Rudd and Gillard. And of course, he wasn’t to be deterred from the now-customary Coalition swipe about her personal life, saying that Tony Abbott and his wife Margie would be ”a family effort and a family team”. After 2007, the Coalition desperately wanted to put Howard behind them, but Tony Abbott never did. And now he’s calculating that nostalgia for the former Government will win him votes.
Howard’s main theme the other night was that Gillard had been “an even bigger failure than her predecessor”. Which was a pretty tough call, since she only held office for a few weeks before going into caretaker mode. Though she gave it a pretty good go with East Timor, the new PM barely had time to fail at anything.
It was yet another distraction that undermined her message, and you’d think all Julia Gillard needs now is for Fraser and Whitlam to emerge and re-contest the Dismissal.
But of course the former PM who has posed the biggest problem for Gillard has been Kevin Rudd. And I was amused that Wednesday night’s appearance on Late Night Live was seen as a return to the fray, because it’s not like he ever went away.
Some leaders who’d been dumped might have taken a lengthy break to lick their wounds, and the party must have been hoping he’d retire at this election. But Rudd not only immediately announced he was staying but, ever the workaholic, proceeded to hold a series of headline-grabbing meetings with the likes of Ban-Ki Moon and Hillary Clinton. Which was a pretty remarkable achievement for the Member for Griffith – it’s not every day the United States conducts bilateral relations with the Brisbane suburbs.
Rudd even attended Gillard’s first Question Time as PM, sitting with agonizing stoicism on the back bench. All of which goes to show that the metaphor commonly used about leadership changes is far from appropriate in this circumstance. After you stab somebody in the back, they’re not supposed to keep walking around, let alone take away your media spotlight. It’s as though instead of dying in Macbeth, Banquo had hit the lecture circuit.
And now Rudd is returning to save Gillard’s campaign, full of grace and Christian forgiveness. His interview with Adams was wonderfully candid – he spoke plainly and directly, and didn’t use the long words and bureaucratic jargon that had become the trademark of “Kevin PM”. For once, his programmatic specificity lacked detail.
Not only did Rudd seem classy and forgiving, but he took up his sword against Tony Abbott. Expect more of the same. Rudd has always been brilliant at soft media, having risen to the leadership on the back of Sunrise. In his Rove days, the ex-PM seemed like the nation’s daggy-but–smart mate, the swot who scored for the cricket team, who expressed their gratitude by adopting him as their unlikely mascot.
From now, one thing is clear – Rudd’s gift for snatching the spotlight will be used against Abbott, not Gillard. The idea of them campaigning together in Brisbane on Sunday is a very clever one – it will inevitably pull coverage away from the Liberal campaign launch, and frustrate Abbott’s cheeky attempt to stick up for the former Prime Minister for whose scalp he can take the lion’s share of the credit.
Rudd’s re-emergence as saviour will probably also stop the leaks if, as seems almost certain, the source is a loyalist. They won’t want to stop their man’s heroic rescue mission. And if he can pull it off, even the “machine men” who dumped him will be begrudgingly grateful.
If Rudd’s time in the wilderness has rendered him of a holy man instead of a holier-than-thou man, then both he and Labor will benefit in the long term. And who knows – if he sticks around long enough and Labor’s fortunes suffer the inevitable cyclical decline, the party may once again turn to the leader who set all those popularity records.
In the meantime, I have no doubt that the St Kevin 10 t-shirts are already on order, and if he can win back Queensland for her, even Julia Gillard will happily wear one.