Grattan on Friday: What will they all be thinking come Christmas?

Despite a rocky start to his prime ministership, Tony Abbott has been a clear ‘winner’ of 2013. AAP/Joe Castro

2013 has been a red letter year in national politics, with three prime ministers - one the first female in the office - the second successful coup against a PM in three years, and a change of government.

As he flies to Europe tomorrow for a family holiday, Tony Abbott’s overwhelming feeling must be “I made it!” He might wish his term had started better, however, and he should be giving a thought to his “narrative” for the new year.

But what will be going through the heads of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd?

In his vintage-Keating interviews, the former treasurer and prime minister said “we all get carried out in the end”. But each departure is different. When Gillard and Rudd were “carried out” (Rudd twice), both left lesser legacies than they’d have wanted.

Gillard has her place as a “first”, but she’d have desired more – a longer time, greater achievement. Ultimate judgement lies ahead, and some say history will be kinder than contemporary analysis. Since she quit politics she has been celebrated by her supporters, particularly the women, who feel she was wronged - by Rudd, her party, the voters (in all those polls).

If she falls into self-reflection, she must ask herself how she could have done better. Perhaps, she might think, if she’d said “no” to the factional heavyweights in 2010, taking over from Rudd later, in different circumstances, better prepared, her story could have ended more happily.

Gillard this Christmas is moving forward, in her swish Adelaide house, ego and bank account swelled after an enthusiastic fan bought her Altona home at well over the reserve price. But she’s also writing her book, so her thoughts will be on the past as well as her future.

Rudd has even more to regret because he had a clean start, with his 2007 election triumph. Not that he’s a man into self-blame. Would he think his 2013 comeback worth the traumas? He’s probably convinced that if Labor had returned to him earlier he could be where Abbott is today (his critics would disagree). He’d believe the party should be grateful he saved some seats (and frontbenchers).

Rudd’s chapter in Labor history will be seen as unhappy and fraught. It’s unlikely, however, the players will still be passionately debating it decades on, as they are the Keating contribution. Keating’s central claim is that he was the driving force in the Hawke-Keating era. His interviews have set off another round of argument about apportioning credit.

Bob Hawke will be seething, again. John Dawkins, who was Keating’s treasurer, wrote acerbically this week: “I spent 11 years in the cabinet room with Paul Keating but as I watched in amazement his interviews with Kerry O'Brien it seems as if I wasn’t there at all”. Former deputy prime minister Brian Howe bought into the fracas.

Abbott, Rudd, Gillard and Keating all fulfilled their ambition – getting the job of prime minister.

As they watch Abbott, and reflect on their own positions, two current ministers are living with where they might have been this Christmas. If Malcolm Turnbull had survived as opposition leader in 2009, if Joe Hockey had won the ballot when Turnbull fell foul of his party … either could be PM now.

Hockey, with Keating and Costello in mind to stir his competitive instinct, wants to be a bold treasurer. Does he sometimes wonder whether he’ll reach the frustration level of Costello, who never felt able to challenge John Howard, or Keating, who dislodged Hawke at the second attempt? It’s unlikely Hockey would not hope that one day, somehow, he might succeed to the leadership.

Turnbull, by nature an alpha dog, has much to try a nature not imbued with the quality of patience. He’s just had to announce that the Coalition’s version of the NBN is running over-budget and behind time. It’s journalistic sport to keep asking him about his strong support for gay marriage. After he pointed out on Sunday that Australia is lagging behind a batch of comparable countries, right wing Liberal senator Cory Bernardi declared he should resign from the ministry if he wanted to talk about “fringe issues”. Where Turnbull has put that leadership baton is unclear – except he’d probably like to use it as a blunt instrument on Cory and a few others.

Finally, there’s the Labor wannabe PM. Polling shows Bill Shorten has had a good start – thanks to the government as much as himself. But he’ll be looking anxiously to 2014 and beyond. It’s a long road.

At the top, coming second doesn’t get you a prize. But for those who do win the trophy, it brings its own demons.

Postscript: One thing didn’t change this year. Eden-Monaro stayed a “bellwether” seat, won by the new government, with the Liberals’ Peter Hendy beating Labor’s Mike Kelly. For those who followed The Eden-Monaro Project, including the focus group discussion over several months, it is written up in The Gillard Governments (MUP) published early next year.

This is the last Grattan on Friday for a few weeks. Happy Christmas, thank you for reading during the year and back in late January.