Home > ALP > A Delusion of Grandeur: Kevin Rudd in Politics

A Delusion of Grandeur: Kevin Rudd in Politics

If Graham Freudenberg was able to write of Gough Whitlam’s political career that it exhibited “a certain grandeur”, then for Kevin Rudd we might speak of “a delusion of grandeur.”

Many of his most vocal supporters shared in this delusion. For instance his lead cheerleader amongst the Australian intelligentsia, Robert Manne, even went so far as state that Rudd’s critics did not seem to understand that the colossus from Griffith was “an intellectual in politics,” who was “struggling” to simultaneously both “understand and change” the world. No self respecting philosopher king can take seriously Marx’s clarion call in the Theses on Feuerbach.

For Rudd ,and Manne, such an injunction is too modest by half.

Rudd seems to have seen himself as some sort of philosopher king with a Hawkian “special relationship” with the Australian people to boot. His political legitimacy and authority resided in his own personality and talent.

This delusion of grandeur proved to be his undoing.

How else to explain his claim that he did not owe his leadership to the ALP? How else to explain the sheer contempt that he showed the party during the course of his leadership? For example, by coming and going as he pleased at the last ALP national conference? By announcing on radio, well away from the conference, that its resolutions, especially on tax reform, are irrelevant? Not even Paul Keating would have displayed such brazen contempt.

By sidelining cabinet, even to the extent of exiting cabinet meetings to attend to petty media interviews? How else to explain the extraordinary level of centralisation that he vested in the leader’s office, against more than a century’s worth of Labor tradition that places primacy upon the parliamentary party?

He treated both the Labor Party and the Labour movement with contempt. He did so because of his grandiloquent view of himself, but his leadership was based on nothing else other than high standing in the polls. When those polls turned against him so did the party he viewed as an irrelevant appendage.

He was not able to see this until the end. Such are the delusions of grandeur.

A good deal of commentary has focused on the manner in which Rudd was replaced as leader.

Attention has been especially drawn to the role of factional and union power brokers in his ousting and the efficient manner in which they organised his “assassination.” This aspect of the Rudd downfall has been best encapsulated by Mark Latham and Paul Kelly. Writing in the The Australian Financial Review Latham observed that (AFR, 25 June 2010, p24), “the leadership of Australia’s oldest political party has become a transit lounge, controlled by poll and media obsessed appartchiks.”

Latham surely has a point.

The ascension of Gillard did not follow on from policy or ideological differences. This is not a political party that is struggling with its soul, with its policy direction, with its goals and visions, and so has changed its leader. “Our princess” Julia Gillard was seen as a better prospect at the next election. So the powers that be helped to elevate her to the leadership.

Commenting upon the Latham thesis Kelly states in The Australian today that the Rudd ouster, “reveals a party governed not by ideas but powerful interests that span networks of factional, trade union, family and special interest group connections that thrive on the patronage, finances and appointments that only incumbency can deliver.”

That is also true. However, it is possible to overcook this view.

What Latham and Kelly state is surely correct. But there were more issues and, crucially, more players involved. There is a widespread view amongst the Left side of Australian politics that Tony Abbott, and those around him, are rabid right wing extremists. It would be a disaster for progressive politics in Australia should the Liberal Party win the next election. This has played an important element in the change of leader.

The focus on factions and so on is important, but it should not obscure this part of the equation.

Perhaps the most important institutional factor in the demise of Kevin Rudd was big business. It is big business that, ultimately, determines the leadership of the Labor Party. One reason why the corporate media turned viciously against Mark Latham is because big business did not trust him.

To be sure, as Robert Manne pointed out, up until then Latham was the most right wing Labor leader in history. However, Latham always had the dangerous class warrior lurking within him. I saw it. I perceived it. I liked it. But, the rich saw it, they perceived it, they did not like it.

At times his use of the idiom of class sounded almost Marxian. He would not give big business a trusted place in his office. He would, in short, not “consult.” The big end of town did not trust him and so it was easy for the corporate media to portray him as an unhinged nut.

This has happened many times to Labor in the neoliberal era. Recall, for example, the role of the corporate media and the big mining interests in the ouster of Gough Whitlam and Rex Connor. It is not ideological orthodoxy that big business seeks from the ALP. It is important that Labor tends to its interests. Because of the party’s roots in the Australian working class the ALP always represents a risk for corporate Australia.

The main function that the faction system in the ALP serves is to take away the risk of democracy that the rich at all times face.

Consider the case of Bob Hawke. The so called “Hawke ascendancy” and his own “special relationship” with the Australian people was a corporate media fiction. Throughout the 1970s the corporate media pushed the Hawke bandwagon, which was resisted by the Labor caucus almost until the 1983 election.

In office Bob Hawke did not disappoint his corporate patrons. For the rich the Hawke era was a veritable bonanza. But Hawke was ousted precisely because of his adherence to neoliberal orthodoxy. He was successfully challenged by Paul Keating during the depths of the 1990-1991 recession, the one “we had to have.”

Throughout this deep recession Hawke was maintaining neoliberal orthodoxy. Keating, by contrast, was brazenly abandoning neoliberal austerity in favour of fiscal stimulus and loose monetary policy. Keating understood that when the rich get in trouble they want the nanny state to bail them out.

Hawke didn’t and so the corporate media, reflecting the consensus of big business, turned on Hawke and the rest is history.

They made Hawke and then they broke him.

Rudd seemed to understand that “the Latham debacle” represented big business disciplining the Labor Party into proper behaviour. Under Rudd’s leadership the door for big business was widely opened. Commentary at the time reflected how much better the relationship between the Labor leader’s office and big business was when Rudd took over the leadership. Prior to the 2007 election meetings with business leaders were frequent, even formalised on a weekly basis.

Compare that with the relationship that Rudd has had with big business in recent times.

Though his tax reform policies were designed to assist corporate Australia as a whole, though he has extended a helping hand to the financial services industry, though he ditched the ETS to mollify big business, none of that was enough. When the mining industry turned on him because of his minor infringement after announcing the resource super profits tax, which is what the tax is, big business was loathe to come to his defence. Laurie Oakes has spoken of a “disastrous” meeting with the Business Council of Australia days prior to his ouster.

Comments and analyses on Rudd and the Rudd style in the corporate media thereby recently became frequent. The Rudd “brand” was rendered toxic by precisely those who helped to craft it in the first place. The mining industry decided that it would destroy Rudd and destroy him they did. The change over has been fulsomely praised by all of Australia’s peak business bodies. The ascent of Julia Gillard comes with the promise that they will be “consulted” better, as if they have not hitherto been consulted enough already.

In other words, Gillard knows her place unlike the grandiloquent Rudd.

Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd lost the leadership of the Labor Party because they lost the confidence of corporate Australia. How is that Rudd was able to forget the lessons that corporate Australia dished out to the Labor Party during “the Latham debacle?”

This owed to his delusion of grandeur. He saw himself as striding the Australian political stage on the back of his own unique vision, drive and capability. However, a minor infringement against those who really run the country, the big moneyed interests, was very much the big nail that was driven into his political coffin.

Corporate Australia has brought Kevin Rudd back down to Earth with a thud. It is indeed ironic that this is just as it was with Mark Latham. The element of the delusion of grandeur in Rudd’s case immediately brings to mind Marx’s refrain in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Quite.

The emphasis on the factions and patronage is thereby only half the story. The Labor Party’s power brokers do seek office in order to dispense patronage and thereby secure institutional prerogatives. But they understand that this can only be achieved by looking after the needs of big business. If they lose touch with corporate Australia they lose elections.

One interesting aspect to the latest developments in Canberra is the announced departure of the socialist minister for deregulation, Lindsay Tanner. He was widely praised in the corporate media following his announcement. In fact, he earned high praise too from financial market economists for his commitment to economic rationalist orthodoxy.

Tanner was a person who, in his maiden speech to parliament, declared himself to be a socialist. His departure from parliament is now mourned by financial market economists, who shall miss his economic rationalist zeal. This has been taken as praise, but such valedictories by financial market economists are a fitting end to Lindsay Tanner’s career.

Good riddance, Comrade Tanner. Don’t ever come back.

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