Kevin Rudd

The political legacy of Kevin Rudd

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 4:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 4:37am

We cannot recall many political leaders who were able to lead their party back into power after a decade in the wilderness, save their country from recession and job losses in the global financial crisis with fearless stimulus measures, give the elderly their biggest pension rise ever and democratise the country's oldest political party with reforms that gave rank-and-file members a say in who leads it. That is from the CV of Kevin Rudd, former Australian Labor Party leader and prime minister. Yet he has just quit national politics at age 56 because he has no future in it. Sadly, he exhausted a huge fund of goodwill from the party and public.

If there is one issue that eroded his popularity, it was climate change. After declaring it the greatest moral challenge of our time and basking in unprecedented public approval ratings, he abandoned his commitment to an emissions trading scheme in the face of political obstacles, to the disillusionment of a younger generation of voters. He hastened his decline by alienating colleagues through not consulting them on sensitive issues such as a mining tax. As a result, they replaced him with Julia Gillard, whom Rudd then undermined with back-stabbing until the party dumped her and gave him his old job back.

The sorry saga ended with him losing the recent election, after which he quit the leadership. Rudd's worst moments, among too many, include the mysterious appearance of a video last year that showed him angry and swearing at staff after fluffing his lines while recording a Chinese language message during his first period as prime minister. That is a reminder of the real political tragedy of Kevin Rudd. He was a leader for his times, a Putonghua-fluent former envoy to China - Australia's biggest trading partner - a church-going family man who connected with a new generation of voters and their concerns. But the oldest rule of politics prevailed - disunity is death.

Rudd will be remembered for democratising the system by which he was elected leader. That may be his lasting legacy.