Kevin Rudd: direct from New York, a new episode of national scab-picking

There were few surprises at the former PM’s book promotion; it was all old tropes and well-worn swipes. Alas, it’s only volume one

Kevin Rudd lives in New York now.

If you were one of the 600-odd people who found themselves shuffling into Sydney University’s Great Hall on Monday night to hear Australia’s 26th prime minister speak, you will already know this.

But it feels important to mention Rudd’s self-imposed exile right from the off, since it seemed to preface almost everything he said during an hour-long conversation with the Australian Financial Review’s Jennifer Hewett.

It’s why he can’t comment too closely on Chinese influence on Australian university campuses: “I live in the US ... so I’ve probably missed something.”

It’s the proof, he says, that Malcolm Turnbull lied about initially supporting his bid to conquer the United Nations: “I had the guy in our living room in New York before he became PM, saying Abbott was mad to have any reservations about me going for UN secretary general.”

And it’s the reason he couldn’t predict whether Bill Shorten would win the next federal election: “I’m no great seer, particularly from the distance of New York.”

In front of a captive and (presumably) friendly audience, Monday night should have been one for the true believers.

But like the pompous cousin home for Christmas, Rudd’s reappearance in our national politics to coincide with the release of the first volume (!) of his autobiography, Not for the Faint-hearted, has instead prompted a conflicting mix of nostalgia, petty boasting and thawed animosities.

All the old tropes were trotted out on the night. The famously forced folksiness (the book is “this bloody book”) and well-trodden narratives – his greatest regret is that he didn’t better communicate the impact avoiding the global financial crisis had on his agenda.

“Where I could have done a lot better is explaining [that] we had to fulfil our reform agenda a lot slower … why we needed to space it out a bit.”

He took a familiar swipe at his former treasurer Wayne Swan – “I believed he’d learn with the job, the problem was he didn’t” – and reanimated his feud with Turnbull over the UN job.

“After the election Malcolm dropped his bundle … he felt the hot breath of Dutton and Abbott breathing down his neck [and] he wilted like melting jelly in the midday sun,” he told the audience.

But there was something muted about the whole thing. The only spontaneous outbreak of applause came during an impassioned defence of the national broadband network, and in his introduction even Anthony Albanese, still Rudd’s great defender, seemed to display the air of a friend called on to bear witness one too many times.

But to be fair, a decade after Kevin 07, what else is there he could tell us?

Besides the question of who attends these events (true believers? masochists? Sunrise viewers?), is there anything left to ask Rudd?

In fact, dashing the vague hope that the law of diminishing returns dictates that eventually we’ll get tired of this national scab-picking exercise, the only purpose to Rudd’s memoir seems to be as a hellish reminder that a decade from now we’ll probably still be picking at the bones of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull ad infinitum.

And this is only volume one.


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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