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The comeback Kevin Rudd

Could Kevin Rudd be Prime Minister again? AAP

Recent polls have shown a rise in public support for former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd returning to The Lodge. After an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A television show widely seen as possibly preparing the ground for a comeback, what are the chances we might be seeing Kevin'11?

What are the problems of having a former PM in government?

It is an unhelpful distraction for the Gillard government at the present time. Compared to recent trends in post-prime ministerial trajectories it’s unusual to have a former office-holder remain in parliament and its proving quite difficult for Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard. I suppose the focus upon Rudd and his movements has been almost inevitable given his unexpected and early overthrow as prime minister last year.

More broadly, the media’s fascination with Rudd is also consistent with the contemporary obsession with leadership and personalities - the “celebrity” dimension to politics, if you like.

Is this a move away from the established pattern?

If you look at recent history in Australian politics it is very unusual to have a former Prime Minister remain in parliament. The pattern of ex-office holders hastily leaving parliament consolidated from around the early 1980s. Malcolm Fraser left the parliament within a short space of time of his defeat at the 1983 election. Similarly, Bob Hawke resigned from parliament very quickly after being forced out of office by a “palace coup” in December 1991; and Paul Keating didn’t linger in parliament following Labor’s rout at the 1996 election. In the case of John Howard, the issue didn’t arise because not only had he lose the prime ministership at the 2007 election, but lost his seat as well. You can also see a similar pattern at state level - ex-leaders don’t hang around.

So, yes, Rudd is defying the trends of recent history by staying in parliament. And it’s even more unusual in that he has chosen to serve in the ministry of his successor. The only other example of this occurring since World War Two was John Gorton’s decision to accept a portfolio (and the deputy leadership) from William McMahon after the latter defeated him in a party room challenge in 1971. It’s perhaps instructive that that situation proved to be not sustainable. In fact, within a few months Gorton was dismissed from the ministry for destabilising McMahon’s prime ministership

Could Rudd actually come back?

I think it is highly unlikely. It is difficult to know what is driving Kevin Rudd and if he has any aspirations for a return to the Prime Ministership. He, of course, denies he harbours any such ambition.

I think it is highly improbable for a number of reasons. If you go back to when Rudd was removed in mid-2010, it wasn’t only because of a collapse of support in the polls, but was also because of the deep level of disquiet in the parliamentary party about his leadership style. His leadership was widely regarded as dysfunctional: too controlling, not sufficiently consultative and so on. He had badly alienated many members of the caucus. I don’t think the reservations about Rudd have gone away.

Indeed, I think that disquiet about Rudd within the parliamentary party pre-dates his victory at the 2007 election and stretches back even further to before he gained the leadership at the end of 2006. There was always a level of discomfort about Rudd, if not a degree of hostility, towards him. Now, ultimately, so desperate was Labor to reclaim office, and having gone through a number of leaders, the party put aside reservations it had about Rudd - they were willing to give him a chance. But that doesn’t mean those doubts still weren’t there. To some degree he was always seen as an outsider, someone whose ambition transcended the party and his prime ministership was built around a personal rather than party mandate.

As it turns out, the continuing focus on him today reinforces that perception of Rudd - somehow beyond and outside the party and team. Now, that well might be something that Rudd can do little about given the media’s intense interest in him, but it’s a continual reminder to caucus about a key problem they had with him.

I think another reason why it’s highly unlikely that he will come back is that the events of 2010, together with New South Wales Labor’s horror last term, probably have alerted the ALP to the downsides of leadership ‘churn’. For some time Labor has been showing signs of being addicted to leadership churn: a messiah complex by which the party kids itself that a change in leadership is a universal panacea. But the unforeseen consequences of the pulling down of Rudd and a new-found sensitivity to the the so-called “NSW disease” has probably forced the party to revise its ways in this respect. I certainly think there is no will within the party to cut down another Prime Minister - in this case Julia Gillard.

It would have been seen as highly improbable that the Prime Minister with the highest approval ratings ever in Rudd would be dumped by the party. They got rid of Rudd because of a fall in the polls, could they bring him back because of his rise in the polls?

At one level I agree entirely, we can never rule anything out. But with Rudd it was the very fact that he was a phenomenon almost outside the party and he accumulated so much power around himself individually as leader and prime minister that, paradoxically, he was left in a vulnerable position.

Without a strong base in the party and with his prime ministership so much based on a personal mandate - remember of the eve of being cut down he insisted that the Australian public had elected him (rather than Labor) - he was reliant on continuing strong polls to survive. Once the polls deteriorated, he was in a precarious situation. Thus as remarkable as his deposition was, it perhaps wasn’t so unpredictable after all.

I would think now there is a more collective and almost fatalistic sentiment within the ALP that they have to do their best and with the current leader, even if they are ultimately defeated at the next election. The idea that changing leaders is the magic bullet has been eroded.

The polls indicate the people want Turnbull and Rudd as leaders of their respective parties yet both were overturned by their own parties. Are the parties fundamentally anti-democratic?

No I think if anything it is the opposite. Remember neither of these men were riding high in the polls when removed. The real point to take from this is that there’s a level of artifice to these polls. In part, it’s more of the “celebrity politics” phenomenon, but these poll results also have to be viewed in the context of a moment when our political discourse seems to have reached a state of almost paralysis and undoubtedly there is a larger reservoir of public disenchantment with all sides of politics. So when asked about alternative leadership scenarios the public is inclined to tick the alternative, if you like, the grass is always greener on the side.

But I would think the parties should now be wise enough to recognise that these polls merely measure a fragment in time. Moreover, surely they would have learned from recent history that should they change leader there is every likelihood they will find themselves in the same dilemma six months on with the new leader lagging in the polls and public nostalgia for the earlier incumbent or perhaps flirting with a new face. In short, the lesson is to stop obsessing about every month’s poll results. However, on balance, I would think that a change in leadership on the opposition side is more likely between now and the next election than any change on the government side.

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