After Malcolm Turnbull exited Thursday afternoon’s cabinet meeting, the one that came to a non-decision about Kevin Rudd’s candidacy for secretary general of the United Nations, Rudd got in touch with the prime minister’s chief of staff.
Rudd told Drew Clarke the prime minister need not hurry to a final decision about whether to nominate him for the post the former Labor prime minister has been aspiring to much of his professional life. There was no need to rush.
After that, Rudd got on a plane to Melbourne. It was clear he was making his way for a face-to-face meeting with Turnbull to try to head off an adverse decision, but the Turnbull office failed to make contact on Thursday evening.
Rudd was in Sydney by Friday morning. When the two spoke on the phone, Turnbull told him he would not be nominating him for the position. Government sources say it was not the first time that message had been communicated to Rudd.
The former prime minister had written to the government in April formally seeking support for his candidacy. That approach evidently followed a number of informal soundings out of Turnbull about his view concerning Rudd’s candidacy. The feedback from those conversations (meticulously documented by Rudd in private letters he released on Friday night) seemed positive.
Rudd documented several affirmations from Turnbull: one shared via the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, at the UN general assembly in September 2015, with a follow-up Wickr message from Turnbull stating that he and the foreign minister were “as one” in supporting his candidature subsequent to that.
There was a meeting in Turnbull’s Canberra office on 11 November, then another conversation on Wednesday 23 December in his Sydney office. In that final conversation, Rudd says, Turnbull told him the issue of his candidacy would go to cabinet to avoid the perception of a “captain’s pick”.
“You also said to me that the cabinet process would not change the outcome,” Rudd’s letters say.
Turnbull then spoke to Rudd in early May, just before the budget and the calling of the election. Government sources say Rudd was told two things very clearly: that the prime minister did not support his candidacy and, if the issue went to cabinet, the majority of the cabinet would not support him either.
A letter dated 1 May 2016 from Rudd to Turnbull bears that version out. “You will understand ... how shocked I was to receive your telephone call within the last couple of hours, just prior to your taking the matter to cabinet in Canberra,” Rudd told Turnbull.
“In your telephone call you said that neither you nor the cabinet would be supporting my nomination. When I asked the reasons for this, you said that neither you nor the cabinet has the view that I had the qualifications for the position.”
Rudd’s fury bristles from the page. “You will appreciate that you have never expressed that view to me in the multiple conversations we have had on this matter on the past.”
Notwithstanding those bruising communications between Turnbull and Rudd, Bishop was asked to work up a cabinet submission that would be considered by the government after the election.
Government sources say it was Turnbull’s call to put the issue to the full cabinet.
It was apparent Turnbull had misgivings but colleagues had the impression from Bishop that the prime minister would have no option, given the precedents, to take a bipartisan position and nominate Rudd. Bishop then set about the business of establishing whether Rudd was suitably qualified for the post.
The position Bishop arrived at in consultation with her department, and with the prime minister’s office, was that Rudd was eminently qualified for the position. Colleagues say Bishop was of the view that if a former Australian prime minister wanted a significant international post, then the government should nominate them for that position provided they had the requisite qualifications.
Given her character traits, it is highly unlikely Bishop would have extended herself that far if she felt she lacked high-level support. As a leading moderate who supported Turnbull during the leadership change from Tony Abbott, Bishop faces a degree of internal vulnerability. After the election there was talk of replacing her as deputy Liberal leader with a conservative.
Dissenters from the Bishop line of reasoning were out in plain view in the run-up to Thursday’s cabinet meeting.
Anyone watching politics at the moment knows Coalition conservatives are spoiling for morale-boosting proxy wars. This started after the election with calls to delay the marriage equality plebiscite, then swerved into superannuation and protecting the universal right of high-wealth individuals to structure their tax affairs effectively, then it backed into the Kevin UN “over my dead body” cul de sac without skipping a beat.
Just in case we missed it, Eric Abetz issued a statement roundly dissing Rudd ahead of Thursday’s cabinet consideration. In case we missed that, Cory Bernardi, tongue firmly in cheek, took to the twitters to suggest we appoint Abbott to the UN if the selection criteria was as simple as former prime minister in need of a situation – and then issued a statement after Turnbull nixed the Rudd bid congratulating the prime minister on his manifest wisdom.
In addition to the not so young and the restless, various cabinet colleagues turned up in dispatches as being anti-Rudd with the cabinet decision in sight – Peter Dutton, who had been out early suggesting Rudd take up a constructive hobby like caravanning; Scott Morrison, who told his good mate Ray Hadley in not so many words earlier this week that Rudd lacked the relevant qualifications – and even the normally highly disciplined Mathias Cormann.
As positioning goes it lacked a certain subtlety.
Roll forward to Thursday’s cabinet meeting. Conservatives flexed their muscles. Bishop and others tried to hold the line. Turnbull was given the final call, and he has lined up with the party’s right wing. It’s quite the flip if Rudd’s characterisations about his previous endorsements are even half accurate.
The prime minister, who knows Rudd at a personal level very well, does have strong reservations about Rudd’s candidacy for the same reason that Rudd’s former Labor colleagues have deep reservations about him, whatever they are now saying publicly about the virtue of Team Australia.
Rudd is a divisive figure who plays for keeps. He does not take prisoners. Perhaps Turnbull sent mixed messages to Rudd and to other colleagues out of a decent human instinct: spare the man the free character references, hope he changes his mind and goes away.
Those conflicted human feelings (as distinct from brutal political calculations) could explain giving Rudd succour and then the abrupt about face in May.
But on the balance of the evidence it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Turnbull was walking both sides of the street in the hope he would be able to finesse a complex situation after an election when he emerged from the campaign in possession of a personal mandate.
That didn’t quite come off, of course. Now, internally, everything is very finely balanced. And now, to put it mildly, things are in a hot mess.