Integrity in major party politics may not be dead.
ABC1’s Q and A program last night featured the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. There were a few others on the panel, but for the most part, the focus was all on the former Prime Minister. (In retrospect, the producers must have wondered if they slipped up by not making it a single guest show.)
Inevitably, the question was asked – did Rudd regret his decision to delay putting the ETS legislation to Parliament for a third time?
Now, we’re all comfortable with the way Q and A operates. We get a few questions that seem to be drafted by party strategists, the odd incoherent rant and a few intelligent enquiries that are inevitably sidestepped and spun into an opportunity to deliver a political message.
That’s not what we got last night. Rudd looked up at the questioner and said simply, ‘I think my judgment then was wrong.’
La Trobe University politics lecturer Robert Manne, sitting next to Rudd, commented idly, ‘It’s very rare in Australian politics for that to happen’.
Contrast Gillard on the carbon price announcement – the so-called ‘broken promise’, the alleged ‘lie’. Even after she admitted that yes, she had changed her mind, she made a point of stressing that it was because of ‘changed circumstances’ (the minority government). She wasn’t ‘wrong’ to have ruled out a carbon tax during the election campaign; it was all about what had happened to her.
Contrast Abbott on paid parental leave or carbon pricing. He eventually said he’d changed his mind – and vigorously defended his right to do so.
Rudd, last night, copped it on the chin. He told us he’d been assailed from all sides by his own party, each pushing their own point. Some wanted the ETS permanently shelved. Some wanted to push aside, despite the hostile Senate. Rudd looked for the middle ground, hoping that he could gamble on the Senate changing in the next election. By delaying the ETS, he thought he’d found it.
It sounded like it was shaping up as typical spin. They made me do it, I didn’t want to, but they made me! Indeed, Julie Bishop – who seemed completely unable to stop herself from repeatedly interrupting with remarks that clearly she thought were clever, but which only showed her to be doing a fine job playing the role of Party animal – said that several times. Rudd wasn’t having any of that, however.
‘It was the wrong call,’ he said. ‘You make mistakes in public life. That was a big one. I made it … and I’m responsible’.
No attempt to lay the blame off on the so-called ‘faceless men’. No attempt to say he was forced into it. Rudd was clear about it; he was the man at the top, he wanted to unify his party and preserve a piece of legislation in which he believed. He failed. He was wrong. His fault.
It’s what people have been waiting to hear from Rudd – or, in fact, from any politician. Honesty, accountability, integrity. And – if the audience reaction and the Twitter feed are anything to go by – it shocked everyone who heard it. Within minutes, messages of congratulation flooded in addressed to Rudd’s Twitter.
But, of course, overnight, the worm turned – the ‘worm’, in this case, being the media, the pundits, and the pollies.
Rudd had ‘breached cabinet confidentiality’, he’d ‘gone rogue’ – Sky News. Rudd ‘exposed the deep splits that are damaging this government’ – George Brandis on AM Agenda. NineMSN’s report on Rudd included a mention of the latest Newspoll as ‘more trouble for the government’ (apparently, Rudd’s powers include an ability to influence polls that have already concluded). The Herald-Sun focused on the fact that Rudd ‘did not specifically clear the Prime Minister’. Cabinet was ‘split’ – the Sydney Morning Herald (apparently trying to convince us that ‘normal’ Cabinet meetings feature lockstep thinking). And Crikey commented that Rudd ‘put the knife into Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’.
The thesaurus was in demand this morning. It was ‘extraordinary’, ‘incredible’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘devastating’. Possibly the tamest word used to describe Rudd’s words was ‘entertaining’.
But what’s missing here?
The reporting is uniformly negative. Even when the articles start by commenting on the ‘frankness’ Rudd displayed, they quickly drop that and move on to the ‘juicier’ stuff.
We bitch and moan about how our politicians don’t answer questions. We lament that everything they say is spin and lies dressed up as concern for ‘working families’. Where oh where, we cry, can we find honesty?
We saw it last night. We saw a former Prime Minister make the choice to admit the mistake, take all the responsibility without making excuses, and refuse to allow anyone on that panel to spin his words into anything other than he meant. He didn’t accept Manne’s compliment, or attempt to show himself as somehow better than anyone else.
But he was better.
Does it make up for the catastrophic decision to shelve the ETS, an action that severely damaged the government in the eyes of the Australian people? No.
Does it make up for his many other mistakes, particularly the botched home insulation program? Absolutely not.
But then – and this is the crucial thing – Rudd didn’t ask us forget all that. He didn’t even ask us to excuse or forgive him.
Should he have said, ‘Sorry’? Maybe. But what he did do was show us a man who had learned a bitter lesson.
Oh, we all loved to call him ‘Kevin 747’ when he raced around the world apparently currying favour with other countries. We tsked that he was ‘Kevin 24/7’ when he worked his Department into the ground, forcing them to keep up with his own punishing schedule. And who could forget ‘Kevin O’Lemon’?
But what we saw last night was just Kevin Rudd, the sadder and wiser man.
The last Q and A questioner commented that sometimes positive results can flow from personal disasters, and asked Rudd if he’d learning anything from being ousted as Prime Minister. Rudd laughed it off, but I think his earlier answer was the real one.
Rudd acted with integrity and honesty last night. It’s what we said we wanted in our politicians.
We shouldn’t allow media spin and partisan punditry to distract us from that. And we should require all our politicians act the same way, all the time.
We have that ability. We should start exercising it.