As a child living on a farm in Queensland, Kevin Rudd, who would one day become prime minister of Australia, used to build castles out of cow feed. “Have you made up your mind in life?” his father would ask the frail boy, exasperated by his son’s dreamy neglect of bovine care. “Is it going to be beef or dairy?”
Rudd laughs when he tells the story. But it is a laugh tinged with sadness. Long before he became prime minister, before he learnt Chinese and became a diplomat, before he had even turned 12, his father Bert had died in the aftermath of a car crash. It was a loss that would shape Rudd’s future as well as inculcate in him a lifelong belief in improving a health system that he blamed for failing to save his father’s life. “He was a very good man,” Rudd would tell me later. “We say that about our fathers, I suppose.”
But there is more than a whiff of tragedy about Rudd’s early story. After his father’s death, his mother Margaret and her family (Kevin was the youngest of four) were evicted from the farm where they had lived as sharecroppers. Rudd remembers the “vicarious injustice” of the eviction – the details of which are disputed – crystallised when the family was temporarily forced to reside in a car. Rudd became a “charity case” at a Catholic boarding school, an experience he loathed, before transferring to a local school where his academic excellence began to shine and he set out on his course of redemption through study.
I have come to meet Rudd, 53, in his constituency of Griffith, a Brisbane suburb. He is now foreign minister in Julia Gillard’s cabinet: an adviser has warned me that Rudd will not talk about “the events of June 24”.
This was the day last year when, in a brutal political ambush, his short, in some ways remarkable, stint as prime minister was brought to an abrupt end after Gillard’s announcement that she would contend the leadership in a ballot. Rudd resigned rather than face certain loss.
He had caused something of an international stir when he swept to power in November 2007 as Labor leader after 11 years of the conservative John Howard. Among his first acts were to ratify the Kyoto protocol – reversing his predecessor’s antagonism to climate change theory – and to deliver a moving apology to his country’s Aborigines, a historical reckoning that resonated well beyond Australia’s shores. A fluent Mandarin speaker, he had also positioned himself as the first western leader capable of dealing with China on its own terms.
Polls suggested he was the most popular prime minister in Australian history. Yet two-and-a-half years later, he was gone, brought down by Labor colleagues who never liked him and who no longer needed him when his popularity slumped.
The Riverbend Teahouse is a down-to-earth place, just a dozen or so tables on a wooden veranda outside a bookshop. It’s a glorious summer’s day in the southern hemisphere, though Brisbane has since been devastated by deadly floods.
When Rudd arrives, a discreet murmur of recognition goes up. He is taller than I had supposed. Wearing a black suit with a white shirt, his shock of white hair is incongruous against a cherubic face. He seems relaxed as he scans the wine list. “I suppose we should have a Kiwi one,” he tells the waitress. “OK, he’s a Brit, so he’ll drink a bottle,” he needles.
He is soft-spoken, almost droll, in his delivery. He explains that he has been at Brisbane’s cricket ground. Although it is a Saturday, he is on duty. “My job for the morning was explaining the finer points of the game to a visiting Chinese delegation,” he says. Rudd was obliged to draw on his excellent Mandarin, which he learnt at university in Australia and during stints as a student in Taiwan and a diplomat in Beijing in the 1980s. I wondered how he had explained leg-before-wicket in Chinese. “If you stand in front of the three bamboo sticks,” Rudd begins, re-enacting his valiant attempt.
The waitress is back with our bottle of Rapaura Springs, a Sauvignon Blanc that goes perfectly with summer weather. “Now, what’s good here?” He’s playing along with the FT Lunch theme. But I wonder if there is something forced about his joviality. (I had mentioned to one of his advisers I wanted to meet Rudd the human being, not Rudd the policy wonk.) “I am in the mood for some bruschetta,” he’s proclaiming, music-hall fashion. “I don’t know why. An ancient Australian dish, the old bruschetta, with a little bit of an Italian influence. Then I might just have a prosciutto salad, I think. Stick with my Italian theme.” I lamely follow his lead with the bruschetta and order a sushi platter as a main course before realising how odd the combination is.
I turn to the subject of Thomas Rudd, his ancestor, who was transported from London to Australia in 1789. “My forbear was unremarkable,” he says, a strange opening to a most remarkable tale. “He was a 17-year-old London dustman accused by a scullery maid of having nicked a pair of shoes from the back step of a house.” Thomas missed passage on the First Fleet, where conditions were relatively humane. Instead, he made the Second Fleet (“the Death Fleet”), which had been privatised to save money. The operators were paid for each person shipped, rather than for each one they delivered alive. “One of the bizarre tender conditions was that the successful tenderer could retain, for subsequent resale, any leftover victuals,” Rudd says. “Your FT readers will appreciate this.” The operator, a west African slaver, duly cut back rations. Around one-quarter of the convicts, shackled below deck, starved to death.
“My bloke survived,” Rudd continues, recounting how Thomas, after serving his seven-year sentence, worked his passage back to England via China. He was convicted again, this time for stealing a bag of sugar. “So far as I know this was the only doubly convicted, doubly transported Australian convict.” Released a second time, Thomas was granted land outside Sydney as part of a more liberal emancipation policy. He died at 70, a respectable citizen and an embodiment of the sway that public policy holds over people’s lives, first through shipping him to Australia for a minor crime and eventually helping his rehabilitation by giving him the means to make an income.
Four slices of bruschetta arrive on a long, thin plate. Smothered in ricotta cheese, heaving with succulent red and yellow tomatoes and garnished with fresh basil, it proves an excellent choice. I eat, while Rudd talks – heaped fork frozen in mid-air – about his apology, in February 2008, to the “lost generations” of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families.
“I grew up in rural Australia on a farm. We had very little contact with Aboriginal people. Certainly as I got older, I think it became more and more transparent that the nation really couldn’t move forward until it had dealt with the past.” Rudd wrote the speech himself, having rejected various drafts that he found too stilted or emotional. His delivery was pitch perfect. “Because it was authentically from me, as PM of the country, then I think it worked because I wasn’t bullshitting about any of it,” he says. “What surprised all of us here was that it was seen and watched around the world. I think Australians had very little consciousness of the fact, and I include myself, that the world had always had a question mark in the back of its mind about how we had dealt with the first Australians.”
The waitress comes to take the plate away. “He’s talking too much,” Rudd jokes, nodding at me. In truth, he has been doing all the gabbing and he crams in a quick mouthful while he can.
I want to know about China. Many Australians were disappointed at the lack of obvious dividend from having a Mandarin-speaking prime minister. In WikiLeaks cables released shortly after our lunch, Rudd describes himself as a “brutal realist on China” and is heard recommending that Washington should draw Beijing into international institutions, if possible, but stand ready to use force if it cannot. To me he says: “China is the cause of great hope and, for some, deep pessimism. On balance, I am still in the optimist camp.” But he has some “covenantal beliefs” on human rights that will necessarily bring him into conflict with Beijing, he says, referring to his willingness to lecture the Chinese leadership publicly on this topic.
He pours me some water, apologising when he realises he has just diluted my wine. Our second course arrives, his a salad with shredded prosciutto, apples, walnuts and a blue-cheese dressing, mine a collection of California rolls. Did he feel betrayed by the Chinese for killing his dream of a climate change agreement in Copenhagen? After all, he told Australian journalists he had been “rat-f**ked” by Beijing. He gives me a weary smile. “I believe China could have done more. I think they are unfamiliar with the game of high-level negotiations,” he says. Though China was obstructionist, he denies Copenhagen was a washout. “If I was putting it on a Richter scale of one to 10, I would give it about a six.”
That is not how it was perceived back home. It was after Copenhagen that his love affair with the Australian public soured. When he withdrew a bill to introduce a domestic emissions trading scheme, his ratings collapsed. The perception was that he had ditched his principles. He insists he was merely making a tactical retreat after two Senate defeats. “In the PR battle, which I concede that I lost, it was seen as a loss of resolve.”
Rudd had always been more popular with the public than with a party that saw him as aloof, a policy wonk in politician’s clothing. I press him gently on the reasons for the implosion of his premiership, starting with his attempt to impose a “mining supertax”. He had not bothered to build political consensus, failing even to inform his resources minister. “These matters are controversial and I won’t, in this interview or anywhere else, elaborate on what I describe as the events of June 24,” he intones, referring to that extraordinary party coup.
I have another go. This time, I refer extensively to a devastating critique by Australian journalist David Marr of The Sydney Morning Herald, who depicts Rudd as lacking political savvy and alienating advisers and colleagues. Rudd is portrayed as rude, inaccessible – “it’s easier to get in to see the Pope than Kevin” – intellectually arrogant, obsessive, secretive, cold, a control freak. Does he recognise any of this? “Nice try as a second way of opening up the events of June 24,” he says, this time with a touch of anger. “I won’t change my practice of not reflecting publicly on those factors for the simple reason that I don’t think it is productive.” Then he adds in a slightly more conciliatory tone: “I am as flawed and as failed as anyone else in the human race.”
I have been picking at my sushi. Some of the rice is hard. He is working his way diligently through the salad. Rudd, who is a devout Christian, is telling me a story about an “enormously intelligent” Jesuit friend in Rome whose main preoccupation is with what he calls “the globalisation of superficiality”. Rudd says mankind has rarely faced such complex, interconnected problems. “The need is greatest but we are least equipped.”
Part of it is the sheer physical stamina required by modern politicians, pummelled by a 24-hour domestic news cycle and stretched by a global agenda spanning multiple time zones. He remembers the April 2009 G20 summit in London when the leaders of the world were “staring into the abyss” around Gordon Brown’s dinner table. “There we were, all dog-tired, all flown in from wherever and knowing that unless we came out with a coherent set of actions ... the markets would collapse.” This, evidently, is not how things should be done.
Rudd attracts the waitress’s attention. “The son of the British empire wants tea,” he says. “I’ll have coffee.” He sums up. “I believe in politics for the two questions it asks of us. One is, ‘What do you stand for and why?’ And the second is, ‘Do you know what you are talking about?’” Rudd, a conviction politician who has pondered such questions since his days immersed in cow feed, can hold his hand on his heart and answer both in the affirmative. The implication is that many of the leaders we are stuck with cannot.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia managing editor
Bruschetta with cherry tomatoes and ricotta cheese x2 A$22.00
Prosciutto salad A$16.00
Combination sushi platter A$15.00
Bottle of Rapaura Springs Sauvignon Blanc A$38.00
Total (including service) A$122 (£76)
From scumbags to maggots: parliamentary language in Oz
If you want to get a feel for the no-holds-barred nature of Australian political debate, you must start with former prime minister Paul Keating, writes Mike Seccombe. “I try to use the Australian idiom to its maximum advantage,” he once said, in a rare moment of understatement.
Arguably, over more than a quarter-century of public life, including eight years as treasurer and five as prime minister from 1991-96, Keating contributed more to the annals of creative invective than any politician, anywhere.
At times he used language like a blunt instrument. He derided opponents – on the floor of Parliament – as clowns, ratbags, harlots, scumbags, pissants, mangy maggots, dogs returning to their vomit, and in one case “a dead carcase, swinging in the breeze”, waiting for someone to cut it down.
Other times he used language like a rapier. One opposition leader, Andrew Peacock, was a “painted, perfumed gigolo”. John Howard, prime minister from 1996 to 2007, was “a desiccated coconut”.
Keating was the all-time champ of eloquent abuse. But in Australia, abuse is a bipartisan political tradition, although it is notable that leaders of the main Conservative party (misleadingly named the Liberal party) have tended to rely on designated attack dogs, whereas Labor leaders have done it themselves.
The styles have varied, from the erudite (Gough Whitlam), to the vulgar (Mark Latham, who once referred to the Liberal party as a “conga-line of suckholes” and John Howard as an “arse-licker”), but all were able demolitionists. So is Julia Gillard, the current Labor prime minister.
The one exception was her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. The toughest quotes you’ll find in an online search feature words such as “probity” and “malfeasance”. When the party dumped him as leader, the first time Labor ever removed a sitting PM, his priggishness was part of the reason.
By now, readers outside Australia may be aghast. But consider the possibility that all the invective is a measure of national cohesion and how well the place runs. The ideological spectrum is very narrow; public institutions are competent and non-corrupt. In comparative terms, policy changes little when the government does. Behind the scenes, in the parliamentary committees that decide policy, things work relatively co-operatively.
Mike Seccombe covered Australian politics for The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald for 20 years