On Monday, Kevin Rudd strode into Parliament a white knight leading a small band of fierce yet determined foot soldiers. He was there to do battle with the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. From his pronouncements, we can imagine Rudd sees Gillard as an unfathomably evil creature who robbed him. She was the red dragon that stole his crown jewel.
The contrast is stark in Rudd’s mind. He escaped from the nasty coup in 2010 wounded but free of mud. He had jousted with the dragon and lost, because she had gathered an army of minions. This time, Rudd lost again. The minions were now senior Ministers, and they duped the caucus into believing Rudd would tear the Government apart. Again, he claims the moral superiority. His challenge was open and honest. He calmly approached the gates of her lair (having left fortress Brisbane far behind) and fought openly, while Wayne Swan and others ambushed him even as Gillard loomed in sight. His tears in 2010 were pure, borne of shock and a sense of betrayal. Today, Rudd knew he would lose. He will retreat to the backbench for now.
The whole fantasy of Kevin Rudd the White is a story that has been well-told by Rudd and his supporters. If only Labor had managed to enthrall the electorate with the tale.
They could have used their time since 2007 to draw up a neat map of successes. They warded off the plague of the GFC, saw a carbon tax through the roughest of media seas, delivered increases in pensions for the villagers, and began laying down the information infrastructure that will keep the kingdom strong. They have delivered much more. In contrast, Tony Abbott careens wildly throughout the countryside, trying to find the cracks that will let him climb into the castle.
Instead of trumpeting their successes, Labor has given Abbott the chance to show that you can slay a dragon – and a whole bunch of her colleagues – without offering a credible alternative. Where other Liberal leaders have articulated clear vision, Abbott has just been casting spells and hoping that one of them won’t turn him into a toad.
Gillard’s victories include the aforementioned carbon tax, plus the health agreement and the pay boost for community services workers. These are her reforms. But they have barely been mentioned outside of the media and the Government. Gillard has not been able to write the Government’s story. This is partly because she lost the ability to narrate it once Rudd was deposed. Instead, the clear voice of the brave knight has been reading it his way. He was the victim and the classic fairy tale storyline kicked in. He had to be returned, because that would be natural justice. That is the ending the public have been seeking.
When Rudd broke from the pattern last week and resigned as Foreign Minister, he once again seized the role of narrator. He told us the Gillard reforms began while he was in charge and he now sought to take credit for them. He stepped into the role of the Knight as we had hoped. He evolved into the worn down hero who has had enough of tyranny and would lead the revolt. But Rudd had not counted on the venom from those he had worked with. Nicola Roxon, Wayne Swan and Simon Crean let their arrows fly as soon as Rudd’s drawbridge was down. Only bit-part Ministers (with the exception of Anthony Albanese) joined his party. The villagers cheered for Rudd as he rode out, but it was not their battle to fight. The members of the Labor caucus would decide this winner and many showed their disdain for the interference of the public.
It remains to be seen whether Gillard will take vengeance on those who supported Rudd. Her refusal to accept Albanese’s resignation suggests that they will be treated well. But as the White Knight retreats to mend his armour, the prospect of ongoing disunity in the Government is strong. Their best hope is to tell a compelling story. It needs to be a page turner. The successes need to be seen and celebrated. If not, another army may rise to challenge Gillard, even if the flaxen-haired ex-PM is not part of the charge.