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Book Review: The PM Years

G11th December 2019

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A review of Kevin Rudd’s latest book “The PM Years”, the second part of his autobiographical series.

The sacking of first-term Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010 by his own party represented a turning point for Australian politics. Never before had this happened in Australia, but since then, no Australian Prime Minister has served out a full term.

Cover of The PM Years showing a photograph of Kevin Rudd.
The cover for Kevin Rudd’s The PM Years.

Kevin Rudd had won the 2007 election for the Australian Labor Party in a landslide. Famous for his presidential-style slogan “Kevin07”, Kevin Rudd broke 11 years of conservative Liberal Party rule under John Howard. Rudd quickly set to work; undoing the Liberal’s unfriendly WorkChoices legislation, committing Australia to carbon emissions reductions and apologising to the Stolen Generations. Rudd was wildly popular, especially after the government had successfully steered Australia through the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Things started to change when the government decided to delay the introduction of an emissions trading scheme and it was at this time that Rudd’s deputy, Julia Gillard, lead a nighttime challenge against her leader. Australia would never be the same again and as they say, the rest is history.

The PM Years is Rudd’s response to the various allegations that were made about him by Gillard and the “faceless men” of the Labor Party to justify why he had to be removed as PM. In this detailed account, Rudd provides a thorough background context for the events that lead up to the “coup” (Rudd insists on this language). We learn of his hard work in trying to get the world to commit to emissions reductions targets at Copenhagen, his determination to legislate for better industrial relations laws and his vision for a fairer Australia.

Early on, Rudd’s government was challenged by the GFC, which ultimately shaped his government’s programme and its budget bottom line. Rudd enthusiastically tells us how he foresaw the warning signs and worked with Treasury secretary Ken Henry to take decisive action in the form of two massive stimulus packages.

As you’d expect from an autobiography, there’s no shortage of self-congratulation from Rudd about his government’s performance, although he readily acknowledges that such a book cannot possibly be objective. That doesn’t diminish its value, which for me came from the very personal insight that Rudd provides about his time in office.

In the argy-bargy of politics, it’s easy to overlook the personal effect on politicians. Rudd opens up candidly about the stresses that he felt throughout his leadership, in particular following the vitriolic attacks that he suffered after Gillard took the leadership.

The sheer brutality of the “faceless men” in the Labor Party and their desire to wrest control of the government at all costs is astounding. Rudd shows, with referenced notes, why the claims that Gillard and the “faceless men” made (that Rudd was non-consultative, that he was a bastard to his ministers and that he was mentally unwell) weren’t true. He also systematically demolishes Gillard’s argument that she did not plot the coup in advance.

Whilst Rudd depicts himself in favourable terms, the candid nature of this autobiography is refreshing. In this large tome, Rudd shares his passions for public policy, international relations and his underlying belief that Australia really can use diplomacy to influence world affairs if it desires to. Rudd has long had an interest in China and was often depicted in the media as a sinophile. In The PM Years, Rudd demonstrates a far more nuanced understanding of China that was apparent via the popular press during his terms of office.

When I started reading The PM Years, I wondered whether this book would be mostly filled with gossip and vitriol like The Latham Diaries was. Of course we do get some of that. Rudd frequently portrayed treasurer Wayne Swan as an intellectually deficient “numbers man”, incapable of getting his head around his portfolio. He also had little time for Mark Arbib whose antics he described at length. He also wrote a chapter about what he viewed as Peter Garret’s ineptitude when faced with the ‘pink bats‘ crisis. Yet, he also spoke positively about others, such as Penny Wong, whom he deeply respected. Rudd also shed some light on the personality of key Liberals including opposition leaders Tony Abbott (whom he claimed was only interested in biffo) and Malcolm Turnbull.

Rudd is popularly criticised for being too verbose (an assessment I disagree with), so it’s no surprise that The PM Years comes in at a whopping 672 pages. The chapters in The PM Years are organised thematically and thus semi-chronologically, which has resulted in repetition in some places. The book also assumes that the reader is somewhat familiar with the events of “the coup”. I agree with other reviewers when I suggest that it could have been pared down somewhat, if only to tighten-up the storytelling.

Rudd is also keen to name-drop. Sure, as a diplomat, foreign affairs minister and prime minister, he met a lot of very important people and their stories are relevant to Rudd’s narrative. It was his tendency to preface the names with “my old friend” so-and-so that came across as needlessly boastful at times. It’s a quibble, I admit, but an aspect of Rudd’s writing style that became tiring.

The PM Years is an insightful book. It’s not a short read, but if you are able to commit to a book of this length, it’s well worth the effort. In the end, I was left with an impression of an industrious politician and Christian man who thought carefully about the world’s problems and sincerely worked to elevate Australia’s position and prestige via open trade and soft diplomacy.

The PM Years by Kevin Rudd is published by Pan Macmillan (ISBN: 9781760556686).

   

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