At the dark heart of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon is the killing of a Samurai and the rape of his wife. Rashomon retells the same story four times by unreliable and self-serving narrators. As the film closes, we are no nearer to finding out what happened in the woods, nor discerning which “truth” is real.
The “Rashomon effect” infused the ABC’s The Killing Season, a mini-series on the political turmoil inside the Australian Labor Party between 2007 and 2013, with its compelling and multiple accounts of a more recent case of political murder and betrayal. Whose “truth” best explains the implosion of the Rudd-Gillard Labor governments?
In the final episode, aired on Tuesday night, Kevin Rudd asserted that:
Julia has always had a bit of a problem with the truth.
Throughout the series, Julia Gillard’s testimony flatly contradicts Rudd’s. Rudd denies leaking against Gillard during the 2010 campaign, although says it was “entirely possible” he had earlier leaked to Laurie Oakes. Gillard asserts that Labor veteran John Faulkner was a go-between the two and she was forced to offer Rudd a role in cabinet to shut him up. Rudd denies this.
We also get multiple “truths” in earlier episodes. Rudd is portrayed as interfering, micro-managing and bullying in his first stint as prime minister. But others, including Jenny Macklin, report a different Rudd.
Accounts also changed over time. Nicola Roxon reported a good relationship with Rudd in trying to secure hospital reform, but later called him a “bastard”.
Truth and reality merged throughout. Gillard was backed to remove Rudd, in part, because of her ability – and his inability – to deliver policy outcomes. Yet, in office, Gillard quickly shifted the mining tax “off the agenda”, only for it to rebound with disastrous effects. She flip-flopped on immigration policy.
Supporters in both camps can rightly point to their own achievements. Former treasury secretary Ken Henry is unequivocal about Rudd’s foresight in predicting and handling the global financial crisis. The National Disability Insurance Scheme remains a testament to Gillard’s leadership, as does her rightful naming of Tony Abbott’s misogyny.
What we learnt
Political scientists are still grappling with an understanding of the Rudd-Gillard era. The Killing Season, like the burgeoning memoir industry, is strong on the personality politics that destroyed the ALP, but can’t capture wider systemic issues. At least three of these issues stand out.
In a famous account, political scientist Steven Lukes describes the three faces of political power: decision-making, agenda-setting and preference-shaping. The media and the public often tend to focus on the first – the achievements of government.
Lukes noted the power of “non-decision making” – that is, the effects of not choosing a course of action. What is striking – particularly during Rudd’s first term – is the many non-decisions by Rudd and his cabinet to tackle their growing woes. It was Rudd deferring the Henry tax review, not “cherry-picking” it, that caused more problems.
There were many opportunities for colleagues such as Lindsay Tanner and Wayne Swan to challenge Rudd on his leadership. Rudd, in part, lost his political capital due to a complex network of non-decision-making by him, his party and others around him.
There is also the vexed question of what the Labor Party stands for. Under Rudd, at least, this was clear. Rudd sought to re-animate the ALP with a brand of social democracy arguably not seen since Gough Whitlam’s time. Gillard – at least initially – was reluctant to offer her own “light on the hill” vision, preferring (and hoping) to be judged on her pragmatic gains. When she did try and articulate her vision it was widely judged as “anaemic”.
In contrast to Rudd, Gillard falls within the “labourist” tradition – focusing on the hip-pockets of “working families”. Arguably, the little-noticed decision to increase the tax-free threshold was her single most important redistributive move. But Gillard’s labourist approach and links to the unions were not always a source of strength. Same-sex marriage proved a complex issue.
Despite claims that ideology is dead – or, for Rudd, a “straitjacket” – it continues to exert a key influence on Australian politics. How the ALP navigates its traditions is not internal navel-gazing, but central to its future ability to shape Australia.
Finally, The Killing Season reminds us of both the stability and fragility of the Australian political system.
In Rudd’s first term, the system was creaking under pressure. There is dispute about a growing presidentialism, which is ill-suited to Australia’s Westminister system. Rudd’s expansion of his office, his micro-managing and his “Kevin ‘07” campaign are all key exhibits here.
But the flaws in Rudd’s leadership – and his later “wrecking” tendencies – obscure the systemic vulnerabilities of cabinet, the weakened ability of the public sector to deliver “frank and fearless” advice, and the marginalisation of parliament.
It took Gillard’s minority government to accelerate legislative change and to partly rebuild these core institutions. For all its merits, The Killing Season does not address the ALP’s damagingly narrow use of polling. Despite its increasing frequency, and the 24-hour news cycle, this perhaps masks a growing gap between the political class and the public.
Ultimately, as we continue to pick over the debris of the Rudd-Gillard era, we are still trying to make sense of its multiple – often contradictory – truths.