The defining moment of recent politics in Australia was not the moment when John Howard lost government and his own seat in the 2007 general election.
Nor was it the moment that Kevin Rudd lost the support of his party room and was removed from the leadership of the Labor Party and thus the Prime Ministership and was replaced by Julia Gillard.
No, the defining moment of this period was Kevin Rudd’s reaction to his removal.
Deposed leaders have cried before, some have even been less than gracious about their loss and some have been admirable and stoic. But none has ever subjected we-the-people to such a sustained existential outpouring of grief and emotion as Kevin Rudd provided in that parliamentary Garden of Gethsemane on the 24th of June 2010.
The standard narrative to explain the enduring unpopularity of Prime Minister Gillard is that the voting public never accepted her ascension to the leadership, that she has never adequately explained the reasons the party replaced Rudd.
But it is a more challenging story than that.
Leaders have been ruthlessly dumped before but none have ever followed it up with emotional open-heart surgery on national television. It was Rudd’s excruciating and affecting farewell speech that touched us and forever cast Julia Gillard as an illegitimate usurper, framed her as the wicked, power-hungry woman who took what was not rightfully hers.
Our attitude since then has been, essentially, it’s your fault, Julia, that we had to sit through that and we will never forgive you.
Without the speech, she might still be struggling in the polls, but she would not have been vulnerable in quite the same way.
The sheer raw emotion of Rudd’s soliloquy, as we watched a man’s world, his raison d’etre, his actual being crumble in front of us, had the dual effect of focussing our attention on everything we hate about politics as it is practiced and of having us cast around for a scapegoat onto whom we could project our own discomfort.
As we all know, Rudd came to power in a wave of almost unprecedented popularity, cleverly positioning himself as the young, modern heir apparent to the aging and increasingly distrusted John Howard, Prime Minister of long standing and much success.
Kevin ‘07 offered himself as substantial change clothed in John Howard’s hand-me-downs.
In hindsight, Rudd’s rise and rise can be seen as inevitable, but at the time, it never felt that way. Howard had repeatedly shown himself able to pull victory from the ballot box of defeat and right up until election day, there was a sense that something would happen that would discredit Rudd and people would, however reluctantly, vote again for Howard.
I was running my News Ltd blog, Blogocracy, at the time and the comments boxes would constantly fill with anxious lefties and smug righties each equally convinced that Howard would once again pull a rabbit out of his hat (or wherever it was that he kept them).
The revelation of Rudd’s visit to a strip club in New York was one of those moments that looked like it would break the spell, as was the moment when Howard announced the so-called “intervention” for the Northern Territory.
At every step, there was a sense that Rudd would trip and that Howard would lightly skip over him, as he had over Keating and Beazley and Latham before him.
One of the enduring memes during the lead up to the election was the phrase directed at Kevin Rudd: "Don’t Fuck It Up". I don’t remember who coined it, but it perfectly captured the sense of fragility that underpinned any sense that the Howard Government would, at last, lose office.
So when Rudd actually won the election and won it comfortably, there was a massive feeling of relief. This was reflected in Rudd’s polling, which went through the roof and for a while there he looked impregnable.
It didn’t last, of course. The hollowness of Rudd’s position within the Cabinet (his lack of factional support) combined with a relentless media campaign of demonisation, a personal style that alienated colleagues (in the way a hyena alienates the carcass of a dead zebra), a control-freak disposition that micromanaged nearly everything into inaction or half-arsedness and a gutlessness that saw him jump backwards every time News Ltd said boo, culminated in him abandoning the climate change legislation that in many ways defined his entire political persona and saw his public standing fall over.
It was the sort of slump that first-term PMs often face and get through, but he wasn’t up to the challenge and his party were so over him that they seized the moment.
So, the knock on the door, the dethroning, the casting into outer darkness.
And then, oh God, that speech.
“I WAS elected by the people of this country to bring back a fair go for all Australians and I have given my absolute best to do that.
“I’ve given it my absolute all. In that spirit I am proud of the achievements that we have delivered to make this country fairer....
On and on it went and something inside of us died. And then hardened.
As he stood there for fifteen painful minutes, surrounded by his family and baring his soul while reciting his legislative achievements, crying like a reprimanded child while pleading with us to notice that he was a good boy really, we were forced to reflect on the awfulness of our democratic politics, the dirty secret that we all choose to ignore: that our parliamentary system is a brutal business that makes inhuman demands of our politicians but that we nonetheless demand they bear so that we don’t have to. So that we can have nice things like balanced budgets and full employment and a tax cut and a family benefits payment and roads and schools and healthcare and all the other everyday miracles we take for granted and as our right.
The awfulness of the process that gives us all these things was brought to the surface in a way that never normally happens and we were ill-equipped to deal with it. We might’ve fallen out of love with him, but at that moment, we were willing to forgive him and give him another chance.
Then up stepped Julia, sloshing through Kevin’s vale of tears and, to quote Annabel Crabb’s contemporaneous article on the event in which she already exhibits the sort of hostility and resentment that was about to be tipped like hot oil onto our new PM’s head: “If words were hard to summon for the outgoing Prime Minister, the incoming one experienced no such broadcast difficulties. Sweeping into the Caucus room looking calm and groomed (an early demonstration, perhaps, of the wisdom of having a First Hair Technician on board), she launched smoothly into a treatise on the sort of Prime Minister she planned to be.”
Kevin wept and then Julia swept and how dare she.