I’m a sucker for a book by a political insider and so devoured the latest book from Troy Bramston, a former speechwriter for Kevin Rudd. Rudd, Gillard and Beyond is short — only 165 pages — but is an excellent addition to the genre of books about Labor that Bob Carr calls “vampire fiction”.
Many of the authors, of course, have written with one hand on the keyboard and the other firmly covering their arses, rewriting history to make their own contribution shine brightly. But Bramston’s is different — this is his sixth book about the Labor Party, and he brings the talents of a party historian and a professional writer to a compelling narrative.
Only an insider could write about the last days of Rudd in 2010, “Innocent conversations about the state of the government had to be conducted in secrecy. It was like living in Caligula’s Rome; you didn’t know what would happen if Rudd found out.”
Another insight comes from the last day of the 2013 election campaign, when Rudd sent out an automated, pre-recorded message of thanks to the national campaign staff saying, “we have changed the way election campaigns are run in Australia”.
“You’re damn right, Kevin,” was the reply. “We will never run a fucking campaign like this again. It’s been a complete fucking shambles.”
Bramston, now a columnist for The Australian newspaper (and stellar tweeter), was expertly interviewed about the book last night by ABC political reporter Annabel Crabb at a Q and A in Sydney. He said he had joined Rudd’s staff just after Rudd became opposition leader in 2006. At that time, visiting UK strategist John McTernan told the young speechwriter that the ALP would win the 2007 election despite the fact that it was Labor — the party was depending on Rudd to get it over the line because it was hollow at the core.
“The power of Rudd’s personality was the attraction to the electorate. And when Rudd started to falter, there was nothing left,” Bramston said.
Paul Keating said that the problem for Rudd was that he wasn’t “tribal Labor”. Gillard was the direct opposite, the author said. “People like her, and she understood the tribal rhythms of the ALP that Kevin did not.” Two days after the leadership change, a senior Labor person told him “if only Rudd had had a few Chinese meals with half-a-dozen trade union figures, he’d still be leader”.
The book reproduces, for the first time, an email sent by Gillard to Rudd three days before the challenge. In it, she outlines all the government’s problems, mainly to do with the chaotic processes with the PM’s office, and contains a list of things that needed to be done to turn around the plummeting opinion polls. She says that the government is facing defeat because it is perceived to be “incompetent” and “out of control”. The email is obviously written in haste and contains a few typos.
Bramston said last night that the email was evidence supporting her assertion that the coup was not premeditated and that she had only made up her mind to challenge on the day.
“I am very sympathetic to Julia Gillard and the position she was in, she was trying to fix the problems. But she realised three days later that she couldn’t fix them and had to become prime minister.”
He also offered what Crabb described as a comprehensive “lift-door analysis” of the two leaders. If you went to a function with Rudd, he would go around and speak to all the people he had to speak to; once the lift doors had closed, he would simply say, “where are we going next?” Bramston said. But if you went to one with Gillard, inside the lift, she would quiz the staffers on what they’d eaten, to whom they’d spoken and how they’d found the night. “In many ways [Rudd’s behaviour] is inhuman,” he said.
With several interviews with former Labor leaders and senior figures, the book also offers a roadmap for reform.
“The key tasks for Labor … are threefold: to recognise why the party lost the 2013 election and to learn from its experiences; to chart a course to the centre ground of politics and articulate a new vision and policy platform; and to continue to reform the party so it is more connected to the electorate, can attract better candidates and has the capacity to campaign for its goals.”
Asked if the ALP had a future, Bramston said there were encouraging signs of reform, pointing to a story he’d written for today’s Australian about Vivien Thomson, a farmer, rural firefighter and president of the Country Women’s Association being endorsed as a New South Wales Senate candidate. Thomson joined the party five years ago because she supported its policies on women, climate change and the National Broadband Network and has been endorsed by the NSW Right faction for a winnable position.
In the next few months, there will be an avalanche of political books being released, perhaps with the important Fathers’ Day date in mind. Tomes by Gareth Evans, Mark Latham, Greg Combet and Bob Brown will hit the bookshelves, together with a book from key former independent Tony Windsor.
Paul Kelly is adding to the vampire genre with a book called The Labor Party, Anatomy of a Tragedy, and if you need a gift for someone you really hate, then there’s always the upcoming biographies of Kevin Rudd and Joe Hockey. The one we’ve all been waiting for, Gillard’s My Story, will be released in October. Too much politics is never enough.