Leaders who lose it - the high price of preciousness
One of the strange laws of journalism is that on the rare occasion you take an extended holiday or head off on a plum job overseas, all hell breaks loose and you end up missing one of the biggest stories of your lifetime. One journalist colleague operates as a kind of reverse disaster indicator, having timed his past holidays to miss both September 11 and the Bali bombings, and also the deaths of Princess Diana and Steve Irwin.
And so it was that in the middle of the unprecedented 18 hours of bloodletting which saw Kevin Rudd knifed in a Caucus revolt which installed Julia Gillard as prime minister, I was somewhere near Kruger National Park in Nelspruit, South Africa, draped with FIFA passes and getting ready to watch the valiant but doomed Socceroos take on Serbia in the final game of our 2010 World Cup campaign.
It was an odd sensation sitting in the Mbombela Stadium and following the demise of our former PM via texts, tweets and websites half a world away, weirder still returning to the hotel at 2am to learn that Sky UK was on the hotel’s TV system and had gone live to Canberra for Kevin Rudd’s excruciating final press conference as Prime Minister.
Maybe it was a result of being deafened by vuvuzelas for a month, but there was one unusual parallel in the simultaneous demise of both Kevin Rudd and the Socceroos that struck me that night.
The Socceroos campaign was marred by a permanent sense of niggling tension and preciousness from the former coach Pim Verbeek who had refused to countenance any criticism of his leadership style, or his defensiveness as a decision-maker, after that woeful opening game where he sat back and copped it as the Germans bunged on four goals against the non-reactive Socceroos.
Verbeek’s subsequent prickliness with the press - calling an SBS reporter a “f…ing idiot” was a high point – proved a distraction for the coach as he prepared himself and his team for the second game. It was as if he could not get past the fact that anyone had the temerity to question his judgment, despite the fact that he effectively confirmed the criticism by dramatically changing strategy in his two remaining games as national coach.
The ability to weather criticism and shrug off the occasional bad headline, be it deserved or otherwise, is a factor which most distinguishes successful public figures from the unsuccessful ones.
The best example of this kind of preciousness at the national political level is Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s demise was essentially about his personality. It’s this factor which makes his removal from the leadership all the more personally devastating. The personality-based nature of this leadership change is evidenced by the fact that three-quarters or even four-fifths of Caucus moved so swiftly in favour of a brutal coup. Many of the chief instigators of the change – particularly Bill Shorten who felt his greatness had gone unrecognised through his absence from Cabinet – were driven first by a kind of personal loathing for Rudd which stemmed from his imperiousness in his dealings with them.
Rudd’s dealings with the media had also become increasingly fraught. Rudd had developed a sense of martyrdom, fuelled by his propensity not to bush things off but file them away, which saw him bend himself out of shape in the prime ministership.
This can be traced back to the Utegate affair where Kevin Rudd convinced himself that the media had wilfully and recklessly reported the allegations of the conniving treasury official Godwin Grech as fact, ignoring the fact that the journos would not have known Grech was dangerous given that he went so far as to make his spectacular claims before an estimates hearing.
Whatever the rightness or wrongness of aspects of the original reporting, Kevin Rudd ignored two key things which ultimately mattered most in this unusual little affair.
The first was that every section of the media quickly changed tack on the story to show that Grech was starting to look deeply suss, and that it was not Kevin Rudd’s judgment but then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull’s which should be called into question The second was that, just a few days after the allegations were originally aired, the story was wholly focussed on then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull’s character and credibility over his decision to run so hard on allegations which turned out to be a crock..
If Kevin Rudd had more of a capacity towards being philosophical, he could have seen that the one happy result of the Godwin Grech saga was that every voter in the land knew that the allegations levelled against him were wrong – leaving him with a lame-duck opponent who would hopefully stagger along towards polling day forever tarnished by the fact that he called for the Prime Minister’s resignation on the basis of a ridiculous lie.
Far from being a slur on Rudd’s character, Utegate was the biggest free kick a prime minister could wish for. Some of the more pragmatic players at the senior levels of the ALP were trying to make this point to the PM at the time, urging him to let go of his anger at the initial reporting of the story and recognise that it had strengthened his leadership by making his opponent look amateurish, reckless and desperate.
Rudd’s inability to let go clouded his own judgment for the remainder of his prime ministership; he came to regard routine reporting of Opposition policy announcements as signals that the media was out to destroy him, and it marred his tactical judgment as a political manager and his standing in the eyes of the public.
By the end he had become so cagey about the way everything he did (or didn’t do) was being perceived that he became a policy gymnast who systematically shredded so many of the major policy positions he held dear in his Kevin07 incarnation, making him look not like a leader but an empty vessel who was so rattled by the polls that he would stand for everything, or nothing, depending on where he thought the votes would lie.
While all this was happening Julia Gillard was quietly – and until the very end loyally – taking a much more philosophical approach as she managed the big policy areas within her portfolio.
One of the most telling contrasts in the styles of the former and current prime ministers was the prep work Gillard did ahead of the launch of the MySchool website. She held a course of briefings ahead of its launch with every editor in the land where she personally walked everyone through the operation of the site, talked about the anticipated demand from parents (which saw it crash on its first day), and successfully managed the expectations before it went live.
When the BER hit the wall over revelations led by this newspaper of misspending she acknowledged the problems and went along with an inquiry.
These two examples were something you would never have got from Kevin Rudd at that advanced stage of his doomed and brief prime ministership as he was jumping at shadows, muttering darkly about enemies real and perceived, so much so that on that amazing Thursday when he lost the leadership, he had effectively red-carded himself through his own prickly and precious behaviour.
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