Kind, but a grind: The unauthorised Rudd

Frank Bongiorno, University of New England

Nicholas Stuart Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, Melbourne, Scribe, 2007 (288 pp). ISBN 9-78192121-558-2 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

‘Unauthorised’ biography seems to promise much, especially when its subject is a serving politician: critical distance; something other than the tiresome diet served up by spin doctors; perhaps even a revealing detail or two that has hitherto been successfully hidden from journalistic blood-hounds. On the down side, these ‘goodies’ have to be traded for an account that might be a bit rough around the edges. Without the collusion of the subject, not every significant detail can be recounted, nor every line in the CV filled in. Information, beliefs, feelings, and memories that could only be elicited in an interview, or through some similar form of communication, will be thin on the ground. Still, provided others are willing to talk, and that a reasonable amount of material is on the public record or otherwise available, the genre has much potential—as an arm of investigative reporting, and a variety of biographical writing.

Nicholas Stuart’s unauthorised biography of Kevin Rudd is certainly the product of this kind of compromise, but one senses that the bargain worked more in favour of Kevin Rudd’s desire for control than Nicholas Stuart’s for revelation or understanding. It’s easy to sympathise with the author in his predicament. It’s not that he’s produced hagiography; he hasn’t. Nor is the book devoid of insight or information.

Lack of co-operation from his subject was nevertheless clearly a problem. Stuart apparently received an indication that Rudd would give him an interview; the new Opposition Leader was then unavailable for several months; an offer of an interview was made half an hour after Stuart submitted the manuscript to his publisher; Rudd’s office later cancelled; Stuart travelled to Brisbane after another appointment was made; Rudd had to go to Adelaide—and on it goes.

But it gets worse. Rudd also asked people close to him not to speak to Stuart. And it’s probably a testament to the Labor Party’s fear of upsetting the apple cart before the next election that so many appear to have been willing to keep mum, although Stuart has been more successful in gaining ‘off the record’ interviews. Meanwhile, Robert Macklin’s Kevin Rudd: The Biography (2007) appeared more or less simultaneously, almost as if to advertise the gaping holes in Stuart’s account, especially in Rudd’s early life. Not that Macklin’s competent but partisan authorised biography is likely to scoop the pool of literary awards; but it clearly helped the author’s cause that he received substantial co-operation from Rudd and his family.

Some of Stuart’s wounds do seem to have been self-inflicted.

All the same, some of Stuart’s wounds do seem to have been self-inflicted. His prose is, at best, serviceable. In chapter seven alone, there are more sporting clichés than any author in entitled to in a book of less than 80,000 words, let alone a single chapter. After Latham’s departure, Labor ‘was reeling like a punch-drunk prize-fighter’ (p. 184). Rudd’s parliamentary ‘arguments had the power of a wrestler who first knocked his opponents to the floor before pinning them down so they couldn’t escape’ (p. 189). ‘Even here … not every post was a winner’ (p. 189) but ‘Rudd rapidly dispatched commentary from the ill-informed, like a cricketer slogging a ball to the boundary’ (p. 192). When the allusion is historical or literary, Stuart’s explanation is either so detailed or, on occasion, so inaccurate, that the effect is rather like the comedian who finds it necessary to explain the humour in his jokes. Sometimes, his quest for historical padding overwhelms all sense of reality, as in the claim that news of World War I ‘took a long time to reach half-way across the world and travel down to the little railway siding sitting halfway between Wagga and The Rock in southern New South Wales’ (p. 20). In fact, in the age of the telegraph, it would have taken, at most, a few hours.

One suspects that haste was part of the problem here; this book had to be published in advance of the next federal election, and considering that Rudd only assumed the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party in early December, can’t have been more than a few months in the making. Probably as a result, it’s under-researched, even within the constraints imposed by the subject’s lack of co-operation.

The gaps are many. Rudd’s first, unsuccessful attempt to enter parliament in 1996 is hardly mentioned; but there must be a bit of information around on this campaign—and some hint, somewhere, of the impact of this initial defeat on the aspiring politician. Stuart justifies his instant biography on the grounds that Rudd ‘is standing for election today, asking us to trust him with our hopes for the future. We need to know about Rudd now’ (p. 1). But after the Latham debacle over the summer of 2004–5, I’d like to know a little about how our man is likely to cope with electoral defeat, something that can’t be ruled out, even now, at the forthcoming election. His reaction in 1996 would surely provide a clue; and Macklin’s book confirms that the Rudds were indeed devastated by the result of that election.

It should not, moreover, have been beyond the wit of an experienced journalist such as Stuart, who has worked for the ABC in both radio and television, has a PhD in journalism, and now writes for the Canberra Times, to find out what Rudd did in the brief interregnum between the failure of his first attempt to enter federal parliament at the 1996 election, and his victory in 1998. (Macklin reveals that he worked as a consultant, using his expertise in Chinese language and culture, as well as business links developed while working for the Goss Government, to build up a successful concern.) Rudd’s period as a senior bureaucrat in Queensland between 1989 and 1995 could also have been more fully covered by Stuart, and much more might have been said—even from the public record—about his policy preoccupations and ideas both then and later. Bizarrely, although Stuart refers to Rudd’s two recent articles in the magazine The Monthly, which were clearly an attempt to outline his ‘philosophy’ for a well-educated audience, he doesn’t analyse either of them, or even provide a summary outline. So why does Rudd so admire the anti-Nazi German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a major theme of one of those articles? You won’t find any mention of the matter in Stuart’s book, let alone an attempt to explain it in terms of Rudd’s upbringing, beliefs, goals or self-fashioning. None of this can be blamed on Rudd’s refusal to co-operate with the author.

The book really gets into its stride when dealing with the fall of Kim Beazley.

Stuart does discuss Rudd’s Christian commitment briefly but, in the absence of critical information on the young Kevin, there’s no detailed exploration. Neither do we gain much sense of why, of all subjects to study at university, he chose Chinese. Rudd’s own explanation—that it was ‘[t]o escape’ (p. 42)—is cute, but he might just as readily have escaped the narrowness of life in Nambour on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast by studying law or, for that matter, Latin. There is reference to Rudd’s Australian National University Honours thesis on the Chinese dissident movement in the books by both Stuart and Macklin, but no indication of whether either has read it—assuming it survives in a filing cabinet somewhere at the ANU (they often do). This would be an obvious line of enquiry, especially for a writer such as Stuart struggling to find material because of an unco-operative subject. Instead, his account of Rudd’s early life is full of phrases such as ‘might have’, ‘would have been’, and the like. Some aspects of the narrative simply don’t make sense: why, for instance, if Rudd’s father came from Wagga did he ‘return to Brisbane’ after the war? You will need to read Macklin to have these matters explained to you. Again, it’s easy to sympathise with Stuart here, but it doesn’t make for a convincing account or portrait. I certainly won’t ever be quoting the following passage as authoritative on Rudd’s response to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975:

Rudd was fixing up the final details of his attendance at university as the Whitlam government began its plunge into the final months of crisis. This would have been a crucial time for the development of Rudd’s political views. It’s easy to understand how the young man might have felt about the consistent opposition that the government faced every time it attempted to implement its policies (p. 47).

The book only really gets into its stride when dealing with the fall of Kim Beazley and the successful challenge from Rudd and Julia Gillard. Here, there is enough interview material—much of it ‘off the record’—to provide a plausible account of why and how the Federal Caucus tipped out Beazley and turned to Rudd. The basic thrust is familiar enough, but political tragics will enjoy the story of who said what to whom and with what consequences. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the NSW Right played a critical part in the transfer of the party leadership, especially the ALP’s young and dynamic State Secretary, Mark Arbib (unfortunately misspelt ‘Abib’ by Stuart).

As a boy, a youth and a young man, Rudd has been a high achiever who played by the rules.

So what kind of picture of Rudd emerges from this account? We often read that he’s hard-working, with an extraordinary willingness to get himself out and about. I can offer a little support to this claim. I was surprised to see Rudd at the Country Conference of the New South Wales Labor Party in Dubbo in October 2005. Dubbo is a pleasant enough place, but it would be fair to say that Country Conference is not one of the most glamorous or star-studded events on the ALP calendar, and one suspects that your average federal politician—even your average highly ambitious federal politician—might have thought twice about spending their weekend in the central west of New South Wales when they had a wife and family back in Brisbane and plenty of other things to do. I recall a session in which, in a side-room, Rudd addressed interested party members on current issues in international relations. He spoke well, taking the audience into his confidence (or appearing to do so) at one point by checking that there were no media present before launching into a discussion of some matter of supposedly special delicacy. The AWB affair was in the news at the time, and Rudd explained some of the intricacies of that breaking scandal to the audience. It was all very impressive and, in the context of the material Stuart provides in his book, clearly part of a larger effort to advertise to the party faithful his credentials as a contender for the leadership.

As a boy, a youth and a young man, he’d been a high achiever who played by the rules: as son, student, diplomat and senior public servant. Education, talent, hard work and a determination to succeed were the paths to success—here, at least, is a strong similarity with Latham, to whom he otherwise supposedly bears few resemblances. Stuart presents him as ‘an intellectual man obsessed by policies and ideas’ (p. 133)—another resemblance to Latham—who’s also had to work hard to develop the kinds of listening and communication skills essential in a modern politician and a grassroots campaigner. Stuart also suggests that Rudd has a bad temper, although the evidence for this remains fuzzy. Less in doubt is that, even by the standards of modern Australian politicians, Rudd is intolerant of negative publicity, or even of stories and images (of himself) that he’s been unable to shape to his own satisfaction, and in his own interests. He’s been seen as arrogant—perhaps because he has much to be arrogant about—but also possibly a form of over-compensation for some deeply traumatic adolescent experiences and a fairly impoverished background. The Tasmanian Labor MP, Harry Quick, is supposed to have told him ‘man-to-man’ that ‘what you really need is a good dose of humility’ (p. 152).

When Rudd was just thirteen, he lost his father in a car accident, and the family subsequently suffered considerable hardship when they had to leave the dairy-farm owned by local man Aubrey Low, which they had been working on a share-farming arrangement for all of young Kevin’s life up to that time. This matter has been the subject of some public dispute between the Rudd and Low families, and of efforts at partisan point-scoring by Rudd’s opponents in the Federal Coalition; relatives of Aubrey Low have vehemently denied that he evicted the Rudd family after the untimely death of the father. Stuart’s even-handed investigation of this matter is one of the strengths of this book, and he includes a detail that doesn’t feature in Macklin’s biography—that Bert Rudd had, on his own admission, consumed a very considerable amount of alcohol before the accident that ultimately claimed his life. This would all be rather beside the point, except that the death of Bert and the family’s subsequent problems have acted as a kind of foundational story for Kevin Rudd’s political career; they are there, for instance, in his maiden parliamentary speech. In Rudd’s telling, his father died because of deficiencies in the Queensland hospital system, and possibly through the incompetence of doctors who were treating his father. While journalistic enquiry has not turned up anything to substantiate these allegations—which, nevertheless, do still need to be taken seriously as the truthful adult memories of a childhood trauma—the realities of the situation were clearly more complex than implied in Rudd’s simple political parables.

It’s hard to know
what Kevin Rudd believes in.

It’s hard to know what Kevin Rudd believes in, at least politically. This is partly because we still have only hints from Rudd himself of exactly what lies beyond the diplomat, the technocrat and the media performer. The glimpses we have received of his background and private life, and his often lively media performances (especially on Channel 7’s Sunrise), have undoubtedly humanised him in the eyes of a public that might otherwise have regarded him as another dreary careerist. But what does any of this really tell us about how he is likely to govern? Stuart is rightly careful not to expound too confidently on this point: after all, who could really have predicted how Howard would behave in office when he was in Opposition; or even, for that matter, how he would govern in the years since the turn of the millennium on the basis of his first five years as Prime Minister? The Opposition Leader’s role is so highly ritualised that it provides a very poor basis for such projection.

When Rudd took over from Beazley, he ‘simply relaunched policies after tweaking them’ (p. 247). In a political culture that seems more conservative than ever, he’s painted himself as a Labor Party conservative, even to the extent of claiming to have borrowed something of the political style of Menzies; a suggestion that must infuriate his opponents in the Liberal Party. Comment on Rudd’s similarities to John Howard has become so frequent as to be hackneyed. He’s strongly in favour of a close relationship with the United States; in this regard, and quite a few others, he’s never quite shaken off the image of being a part of a Canberra-Foreign Affairs ‘mafia’ whose obsessions tend to be somewhat remote from those that excite the rest of us. His Christianity plays a major role in guiding his understanding of, and commitment to, social justice; yet it’s often difficult to see how this leads to conclusions about the major issues facing the nation and the world that would be any different from a run-of-the-mill agnostic, atheist or Calathumpian.

I came to this book straight after reading 1000 pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s two magisterial studies of Josef Stalin (2004 and 2007). After that tale of horror, it was reassuring to be confronted, once again, with the homely banalities of Australian federal politics. There’s much to be said for a system in which those who fail retire into obscurity (or make a fortune publishing their diaries) rather than being shot in the back of the head.

Still, after my reading of Stuart’s biography, I wasn’t quite sure whether Stuart or Rudd was more to blame for this book. Mark Latham might have been a little unbalanced, but he was also rather interesting. All those Latham biographies of a few years back were a clear case of overkill, but you could understand the fascination.

This time round, it’s all a bit of a grind. For that reason, among others, Kevin Rudd is rather likely to be the next Prime Minister of Australia.


Macklin, R. 2007, Kevin Rudd: The Biography, Viking, Camberwell (Vic).

Montefiore, S.S. 2004, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Phoenix, London.

Montefiore, S.S. 2007, Young Stalin, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

Frank Bongiorno teaches Australian History at the University of New England and from October 2007 will be Senior Lecturer at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London.

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