Kevin Rudd began his bid to remain the member for Griffith—Labor’s safest Queensland seat—with a visit to a primary school, where he told the waiting pack of national journalists that during this election campaign he would speak only about local issues and would leave the big-picture issues to others.
This declaration was treated as big news by most of the so-called "old media" as well as on Twitter. Rudd retains the tens of thousands of Twitter followers he had when he was prime minister. He is a unique backbencher.
The only way he could concentrate only on local issues is to shut up most of the time. Shutting up most of the time is now expected of every backbencher on both sides of politics. If they are lucky and trusted by the campaign organisers, they are given permission to repeat that day’s talking points.
Can these rules apply to Kevin Rudd?
Like virtually all political leaders in the immediate aftermath of defeat, especially prime ministers, Rudd looked diminished physically, as if being politically assassinated by his Labor Party colleagues had resulted in him literally shrinking. Perhaps it was simply that the trauma caused by rejection and humiliation had caused weight loss. Perhaps the weight of defeat pressed down on his shoulders.
All of this of course is understandable. That’s why it is expected that defeated prime ministers – perhaps even opposition leaders – will leave parliament at the earliest opportunity and retreat into a period of private mourning. Kevin Rudd has decided, for reasons that are a mystery – unless you attribute to him base motives like a desire for revenge not just on Julia Gillard but on the Labor Party – to grieve in public.
He has decided to do so during an election campaign and while running for re-election, promising all the while that he will do everything he can to help the government win the poll. This is almost the stuff of tragedy, for the fact is that the best thing – indeed the only thing – Kevin Rudd could have done if he wanted to play a positive role in this campaign was to announce that he would not recontest the seat of Griffith and retreat into private grief.
Rudd, unless he is totally devoid of self-knowledge and incapable of reflecting on his motives for standing again for Griffith, must know that his vow of silence on issues beyond those directly relevant to his constituents is untenable.
What’s more, he must know that for more than a month he has committed to remaining publicly silent, even as he gets about his electorate, a wounded man, pained smile and forced bonhomie there for all to see, politically dead and yet somehow managing to pretend he still has a political pulse, as Gillard and other Labor ministers—all of whom he appointed—trash his legacy and his policies.
When she was asked recently whether Rudd had a point when he said that he had been elected by the Australian people and that it was for the Australian people to decide his political fate, Gillard said that in Australia’s parliamentary system prime ministers are not elected by the people, but by their party colleagues.
She is right. The people who elected Kevin Rudd in 2007 were the people enrolled to vote in Griffith. But what cannot be denied is that a large number of Australians feel like they voted for Rudd. This is entirely understandable. Given the way election campaigns are conducted, given that local members are now invariably silenced for the duration of election campaigns, it is no wonder that many Australians feel they were denied the chance to deliver their verdict on Kevin Rudd, prime minister.
It has been reported that Barack Obama, when told that Rudd had been deposed, referred to Rudd’s demise as a coup d’etat. It is likely that a reasonable number of Australians, even if they had come to believe that Rudd was a political dud, feel that way.
Rudd must know all this. He must know that his decision to recontest Griffith inevitably means that the manner in which his demise was engineered will likely remain a live issue for the duration of the campaign.
He must know that he will be a sort of walking, talking, bleeding wound for Labor, and Gillard in particular, even if he manages to remain a say-nothing local campaigner for the next month. And the chances of him doing so are next to zero. Surely he knows that as well.
Certainly Gillard knows it and the Labor campaign machine knows it. In politics, as in life generally, tragedy comes in different guises and revenge can be taken in many different and subtle ways.
There are unconfirmed reports this morning that Rudd will be offered a United Nations role as a senior advisor on climate change. If he is offered such a job, and if he really wants to move on beyond grief and revenge, and if he truly wants to do what he can to get the government re-elected, he will not recontest Griffith.
Read Michael Gawenda's previous election commentary piece here.