Kevin Rudd – doing it Gorton’s way?

Prime Minister John Gorton

I have long been fascinated by the power struggles surrounding Australian politics in the late 1960’s.  These were volatile times with intriguing parallels to 2013.

Not least of these is the career of John Gorton, who is one of the few Prime Ministers to be successfully displaced from office by his own party prior to Kevin Rudd.

Diamonds in the rough: Both Prime Ministers have interesting personal histories and their career paths sit outside the mould of their parties.

Gorton’s life story reads like a Biggles novel.  An illegitimate child he joined the Airforce in World War Two, and was injured following a dogfight with facial mutilations so severe they left him with a lifelong “lived in” face.  On his way back for medical treatment Gorton’s ship was torpedoed and he was left on a raft in shark infested waters until being picked up by a passing ship.  Gorton’s war saw him somehow survive two more air crashes.

Aside from the military, Gortons working career saw him running an orchard and his initial loyalties were to the Country Party rather than the Liberal Party.

Rudd’s early life, while less colourful, was also severe and marked by illness.  At an early age he contracted rheumatic fever and spent a considerable time at home convalescing. It damaged his heart, but this was only discovered some 12 years later. When Rudd was 11, his father, a share farmer and Country Party member, died and the family was required to leave the farm amidst financial difficulty between two to three weeks after the death.  At school he boarded at Marist College Ashgrove in Brisbane although these years were not happy due to the indignity of poverty and reliance on charity.

A diplomat and hard nosed senior official in Queensland his career State Government also followed a different track from the usual Labor Pedigree of student politics and trade union officialdom.

Outsiders & populists:  Gorton and Rudd were both highly popular during their opening days in office but their outsider characteristics also helped their downfall.

Gorton was initially very popular and was the first leader of the Liberal Party not to be directly anointed by Menzies, who allegedly favoured Paul Hasluck.  He was an outsider in the most literal sense as the first Prime Minister to come from the Senate. Miles from the urbane conservatives of times past, he liked to portray himself as a man of the people who enjoyed a beer and a gamble, with a “larrikin” streak.  Later these issues of style would play against him, with rumors of affairs and late night parties at the US embassy swirling around Canberra.

Rudd came to office with a reputation as a highly pragmatic hardworking leader with a distinctive style of his own based on his work habits born in the Queensland beauracracy and a quirky but distinctive turn of phrase – often referring to himself in the third person and posing questions.

An incident where he was bundled drunk out of a strip club served to enhance, rather than diminish, his popularity.

Almost everyone has commented on Rudd’s lack of a support base within the ALP. When Rudd’s leadership fell apart it did so in the space of a few weeks and he had so little support he did not contest a ballot.  In office he sought to strike a bipartisan note, appointing liberals to key positions and ambassadorships.  His open contempt for the Labor machine and its factions is barely hidden.

Rudd’s quirks would also come to work against him as his 24Kevin style came to be seen as obsessive and imposing unreasonable and chaotic demands on all those around him.  Rumours of a hidden face came to work against Rudd, most notably in a David Marr essay which alleged a deep seated anger at his core.

Ambitious reform agendas:  Rudd was an ambitious reformer who attempted to tackle big issues like climate change, tax reform, a digital education revolution, the NBN, healthcare changes and also took on dangerous vested interests – union ties to labor in his own party and mining magnate through the mining profit tax.  Many believe that Rudd simply tried to do too much, too quickly without proper planning.

Gorton also broke with the past in ways that were surprising to many on his own side.  He began to pursuing independent defence and foreign policies and distancing Australia from its traditional ties to Britain. He also fostered an independent Australian film industry and increased government funding for the arts.  He appointed the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the mercurial William Wentworth who took the first steps towards granting Aboriginal Land rights against the wishes of the Country Party.  Some of these reforms, as well as Gorton’s preference for centrism, alienated people in his own party and journalists of the day, like Alan Reid.

Others, like a film and television school, stalled against lethargy from his own side of politics, only to be revived under his successors.  Shades of the Resources Tax and climate change.

Remaking Federation: Both Rudd and Gorton sought to reshape Commonwealth State arrangements in forms of their own choosing.

Rudd believed he could seize the opportunity presented by eight simultaneous State and Territory Labor Governments to make massive reforms to housing, health, education and indigenous affairs, using COAG as an engine room of the Government with various agreements and mechanisms between governments (and their officials) becoming a primary tool of policy.

Gorton favored centralist policies at the expense of the states, which alienated powerful Liberal state leaders like Sir Henry Bolte of Victoria and Sir Robert Askin of New South Wales. He remained a Centrist.  When I met him at a function in 1999, he seemed even more adamant and said he thought the States should be abolished.

Adrift in a world of trouble:  Both Rudd and Gorton found their reform agenda’s tossed in a sea of external events which quickly stripped away some political and financial capital.

Rudd found himself in the middle of a global financial crisis which forced him to abandon fiscal restraint and rush to inject billions of dollars into the economy through a series of sometimes clever, sometimes hasty measures which would ultimately come to backfire on him.  The GFC also effected Rudd’s international agenda as he tried and failed to convince a world community to sign onto carbon pricing at a time when most leaders were worried about rising unemployment and their support at home.

Gorton came to power on the crest of huge Liberal Country Party majority won in 1966 by Harold Holt but found his political capital peeling away as the result of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam war, a war entered into by his predecessors.

Kitchen cabinet:  Both Rudd and Gorton became deeply unpopular within their own parties and were attacked for their leaderships styles, most notably for relying on a small coterie of advisers.  Gorton was criticized for forming an unelected kitchen cabinet and relying on an unelected circle, most notably his private Secretary Ainsley Gotto. Rudd was also viewed as failing to consult the cabinet and relying on a set of youthful advisers within his own office, especially Alister Jordan.

Enemies within:  Rudd and Gorton came to grief through their closest supporters.  Rudd came to alienate what was by all accounts a loyal Deputy and partner in Government in the enormously capable Gillard, and Gorton was ultimately brought down by Malcolm Fraser – a steely operator who was his closest backer for the Prime Ministership in 1968

More popular with the people than their own parties:  Both Gorton and Rudd were replaced by leaders who seemed unable to connect with the Australian people, yet were more popular within their own parties.

After being deposed both leaders held onto sizeable followings determined to get them back. “Get Gorton Back” T shirts were being sported by Liberals well into 1972 as they realized how diminutive McMahon stood against Gough Whitlam. Gorton went on to run as an independent candidate for the ACT in the 1970’s, appalled by the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.

Polling consistently shows that Rudd is preferred Prime Minister and he may yet make a comeback.   When Tony Abbott sought to disparage Julia Gillard at the National Press Club In 2012 he, invoked academic Robert Manne dismissing Julia Gillard as ”the least impressive prime minister since Billy McMahon”.

And yet Rudd still has major detractors within his own party, such as Simon Crean and Nicola Roxon.  Gorton too gathered strong public detractors like maverick MP Edward St John. Unlike Rudd, Gorton retained a strong support base in his parliamentary party even on his ousting when half the party voted for him.

Stayed on:  Both Rudd and Gorton defied the traditional expectations of former Prime Ministers and hung around in the Parliament after leaving the leadership of their own parties.

Both had short tumultuous post leadership Ministerial careers.

Gorton became Deputy Liberal Leader after standing down as leader forcing McMahon to make him Defence Minister until being sacked for disloyalty by McMahon 6 months later during a series of articles titled ‘My Way’ (after the song by Frank Sinatra).

After Rudd’s resignation, he successfully recontested his seat and subsequently promoted back to the Cabinet as Minister for Foreign Affairs, a post he remained in until he resigned on 22 February 2012 in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to challenge Gillard for the leadership.

Rudd’s story is ongoing, yet one wonders whether historians will look back and find two individualistic leaders favored by the people, yet divisive and adrift in their own parties.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.