Kevin Rudd, ‘an artist in a widely-used but difficult medium’

It was as a young academic that I first came across the above description of someone’s creative work. It was used in a book review by one academic of another, and the ‘common but widely-used medium’ was a reference to bovine waste. To some extent that applies here too, because our reborn Prime Minister has shown that he has claims to be expert in this medium.

But he is also a great user of the whitewash brush, and to paint in one colour only, and yet arouse interest, is obviously the sign of great talent. Malevich did it in his painting ‘White on White’ nearly a hundred years ago, but Kevin Rudd today is going for quantity rather than quality. In a few days of furious energy he has done his best to white-out some of the difficulties experienced by the ALP in the past six years, both in government and in the party itself. Soon the whole scene will be pure white, and he hopes that we will be unable to see any sign of the past.

‘Boat people’? Fixed up, through a short conversation with the Indonesian President. ‘Carbon tax?’? Gone, to be replaced by his old and favoured ETS. ‘Gonski’? Sorted, by giving the Premiers more time to think. ‘The nasty NSW ALP’? Fixed, by a federal takeover. How did the ALP ever come to depose such an amazingly effective worker?

But the work of art that must make all art-lovers stand in awe is the reform of the Federal Parliamentary Labor party’s leadership system. ‘Today, more than ever, Australians want to know that the prime minister they elect is the prime minister they get’, said the painter, as he whited over a rather awful six years. Who could forget, he reminded us, of the way that the ‘faceless men’ of the ALP had deposed a wildly popular Prime Minister in 2010 — or the way in which that deposed Prime Minister had white-anted his successor until she too was deposed by faceless men? Oh, sorry, that bit has already been whited out. And hadn’t she been ‘elected’, in some sense?

Did you notice how the painter whited out the inconvenient fact that we  the people don’t actually elect prime ministers at all! We elect local representatives, and they elect their leaders, and the leader of the party that has most representatives usually becomes the Prime Minister. What skill, what touch! The painter, aware of his own apparent popularity, has transmuted Australia into a Presidential system — and all in one colour. What technique!

And how is all this to be done? Ah, well, it seems that once caucus has decided on the leader the party will have to stay with that leader unless an overwhelming majority of the party decides that the time has come to change him or her. Strangely, it was the painter himself who talked about an overwhelming majority, when he said that it would require such a turn of events before he would accept the leadership again. In practice, the overwhelming majority turned out to be 57 to 45, a difference of six faceless men and women in a group of 102 moving from one side to the other.

The factions are said to be unhappy about the change, but very soon they’ll have been whited out too. Factions? Never heard of them, will be the cry. A meeting of the caucus on 22 July will have to rule on this. What will it do? Gnash its collective teeth and go with it, is my guess.

I’ll leave the metaphor for a moment, though it was fun. In my view all this energy is a sideshow, no matter what the polls say now. The campaign has not started, and the Opposition is sensibly saying very little while Dr Rudd goes through all this frenetic activity. Anyone observant will already have noticed that he is doing exactly what was doing when he was first elected leader — racing ahead with statement after statement without consultation of any meaningful kind, and without looking hard at implementation, always his weakness.

He has said that he consulted ‘heaps of people’ about these changes to the leadership system, but they plainly did not involve the secretary of the NSW ALP, who said that the changes left him ‘flabbergasted’. Now there is usually a fair amount of flabber in the NSW ALP, and to have it gasted is no joke. Where is the new softly spoken, consultative Federal Leader he told us about in his own modest way when re-elected a few days ago? Ah, needs must when the devil rides must be the slogan for these days. He’ll go back to being softly spoken and consultative when he has brought the party back to power.

When will that be? He has whited out September 14th, and if the election is any earlier than that he can’t have the local government referendum, as I understand it. That’s not exactly a vote-winner, and in my view he would have been wiser to go with September 14th. The longer the campaign goes the more likely it is, again in my view, that the whitewash will start peeling off and we will all be reminded of just how unpleasant it was to have a government that was so riven with tension and internal hostility that it endured three leadership spills and one no-show in just two terms.

And that’s without even considering the pluses and minuses of what was actually done in that time.

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