There are two Kevin Rudds.
One is the energetic ideas man, the promising new face of the Australian Labor Party who might just be the party’s saviour. “I’m Kevin, I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help.”
This is the Kevin half the country saw in 2006 and 2007, when he inspired the progressive youth and convinced enough of Howard’s battlers to come back into the fold. Wronged by the bully-boys of Sussex Street and the factions, this Kevin won a triumphant return to his rightful position in June. Brought to you by Sunrise, this Kevin is satirised as Tintin: adventurous, intelligent, diminutive, bland.
The other Kevin Rudd is a monstrous, egomaniacal control-freak who flies into abusive rages, a micro-manager whose desk becomes one big in-tray while the business of government grinds to a halt. This is the Kevin of David Marr’s devastating Quarterly Essay and those bizarre YouTube clips which portray a man on the brink of madness. Swiftly removed by his caucus in 2010, this Kevin spent the next three years plotting revenge, destabilising his successor with a relentless campaign of mischief.
Each Kevin is familiar, a real-world expression of an archetypal narrative. The story of “Sunrise Kevin” is an adaptation of the hero narrative: the deposed king has been restored to the throne to show that good ultimately prevails over evil. This story ends happily ever after. Egomaniacal Kevin, on the other hand, is on a trajectory which, like Hamlet, can only end in tragedy.
That people vote after sensibly weighing each party’s policies and record is a useful myth in these rationalist and presidential times. Ultimately, Australians will vote for or against the return of the government based on the Kevin Rudd they see. It is the task of Labor’s public relations machine to convince us that Sunrise Kevin is the real Kevin, against a body of contrary evidence which the Liberal and National Parties will predictably muster.
There were always those who despised the way Rudd ran his campaigns for the party leadership and then for prime minister. Unable to build on a history of mutual back-scratching in the union movement, the ambitious Rudd had to find an alternative path to the top, a search he commenced immediately upon his election to parliament as a 41 year-old former diplomat in 1998. Incapable of forging many genuine alliances within the party, he hit gold when in 2004 he commenced a regular spot on the Seven Network program Sunrise, charming the suburban middle class.
The marketing strategists behind Rudd’s Kevin07 campaign played on this. The last major Labor figure to achieve celebrity status outside the party was Bob Hawke, but that was through his leadership of the unions. Presidential in its scale, Kevin07 traded on the worrying trend toward personality politics. His most trenchant political opponents, such as Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt, saw this at once. Privately, so did more than a few Labor colleagues.
But he won Labor its first election for 14 years and the party was willing to forgive Rudd his foibles, narcissism among them. This was especially so when Sunrise Rudd recorded the highest personal approval rating in Newspoll history, when 70% of respondents said they preferred him to then-opposition leader Brendan Nelson in February 2008 - eclipsing both Howard and Hawke. The first arc of the hero narrative reached its peak. But when his ratings plummeted after his backflip on the emissions trading scheme after Copenhagen, Rudd’s colleagues could not forgive his incompetence.
For months, we were later told, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner tried to persuade Rudd to see at least one big-ticket policy item through to fruition. But Rudd couldn’t take the pressure of his free-falling poll ratings. His response was panicked mania. Winning each 24-hour news cycle became more important than anything else. This was no way to run any organisation, let alone a government. The factions organised a unanimous coup in June.
The breakfast TV demographic was confused. Their image of Sunrise Kevin simply didn’t square with the arrogant and bullying version they saw in leaked YouTube clips, or heard about from those who had worked with him under Wayne Goss in Queensland. They probably didn’t read the Marr essay. The shadowy “faceless men” of the Labor machine had cut down the hero. After an initial flirtation with Gillard, the suburbs deserted the ALP until it restored the king to his rightful throne.
Plenty saw the next three years differently. One who did is former press gallery journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh, who began writing a book about the first female prime ministership but soon saw the story which needed telling: that of a vengeful Egomaniacal Kevin, plotting and scheming his return to the top job through a systematic campaign of undermining Gillard’s leadership at every turn. Aided by co-conspirators in the media, Egomaniacal Kevin set himself and his government on a path to inevitable destruction.
Of course, there was always more than one Kevin, even in 2007. Back then, when he was winning the suburbs by claiming to be a “fiscal conservative” he was also winning progressives and intellectuals in The Monthly and on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live. Neither demographic paid much attention to the other. So progressives saw in Rudd’s Monthly essays not simply one branch of a broad-based marketing strategy, but a genuine commitment to social democracy.
“Monthly” Kevin was Keynesian and compassionate to refugees. Progressives largely ignored the “me-too-ism” being complained of in the right-wing press. But Rudd was always prepared to do whatever it takes, and in 2007 that meant reassuring the suburbs he would be just like Howard only shinier, at the same time as allowing progressives to think they’d elected one of their own.
Monthly Kevin did not survive this year’s comeback. Progressives now see Egomaniacal Kevin and can’t stomach him. They would prefer that the Liberals dump Tony Abbott for Malcolm Turnbull so they can indulge another fantasy. But Egomaniacal Kevin’s existence is a genuine problem for Labor, because it might not be able to rely on the preferences of Kevin07 progressives it has lost to the Greens.
So, the ALP marketing gurus need Sunrise Kevin to kill off Egomaniacal Kevin. That would truly be a victory for the ages.