I was off-line and effectively incommunicado the night of June 23, 2010 and missed all the live coverage, twitterage and bloggage of the impending coup in Canberra that evening. By the time I learned that anything sinister was afoot - whilst checking the World Cup scores at about 6am next morning - Kevin Rudd's head was all but served up on the platter.
My view at the time and in the days following was one of total bewilderment. The knifing of Rudd by his Labor Party confreres was totally unnecessary and an act of panic in the face of opinion poll figures that were not as overwhelmingly supportive as before. There seemed little doubt to me that Rudd, despite some glaring faults in his personal management style, would win the coming federal election, and in any case was an infinitely better choice as Prime Minister than the bizarre Tony Abbott. Julia Gillard is someone I like and who I looked upon as having all the hallmarks of being a fine leader when her time was due to come around - and I was hoping this would be some time during the second term of the current Labor administration (ie between end 2010 and end 2013).
I felt it was madness to dump a Prime Minister who was popular with the people and still in his first term of office cleaning up the mess of four terms of a destructive conservative. But there is no doubt that there were many within the Labor Party who didn't like him and were nervously watching the opinion polls as if these were the only valid measurement of a nation's democracy.
There was no "spill", unlike past changes of leadership. This was a clinically executed coup, not by the military or by mass public demonstration, but by the back-room boys. Some the quiet backbenchers in federal parliament, some the ALP hatchet men looking forward to claiming their entitlement of a senate berth or safe house of reps seat to hold for just long enough till they can claim their parliamentary super.
The internal party coup of June 23-24 was a hit similar to the one performed on Mark Latham in early 2005 and on Kim Beazley in late 2006. And indeed, to those performed in New South Wales on Morris Iemma in late 2008 and on his successor Nathan Rees in December 2009. And, primarily, by the same people, most of whom are present or past occupants of the not-so-ivory tower in Sussex Street, Sydney known as NSW ALP headquarters.
Interesting then that leaders who are seen to underperform can be clinically despatched from office, but there is no such accountability for the party hacks who anoint leaders who subsequently fail to meet expectations. They just get to anoint the next leaders while they await their own inevitable senate pre-selection.
Kevin Rudd has every right to feel personally devastated, and it's a shame that we had to have this fact borne out in detail on national television on the morning of June 24. In balance, however, Rudd was a party hack himself, though not one of the usual trade union lineage. His breeding came via the Queensland ALP machine, especially as Chief of Staff to Wayne Goss between 1989 and 1995. The proverb "Be nice to people on the way up, because you'll pass them again on the way down" could have been prophetic for Kevin07.
He was a Prime Minister who did some good things - the Apology to the Stolen Generation was his finest moment without doubt - and the avoidance of a run on the banks in October 2008 was also a major achievement, the following "stimulus" strategies aggressive but messy in ways that are still unravelling. The passage of legislation for Paid Parental Leave in the past few weeks was another major achievement, as was the dismantling of most (not significantly not all) of the "Workchoices" IR package of the fourth Howard term.
In other ways he failed - the "2020 Summit" of April 2008 was superficially a good idea, but one which ultimately went nowhere. Perhaps government is not the best facilitator of such events, but even so what has ever come of the findings? Major reviews - that by Ross Garnaut on climate change, and by Ken Henry on tax reform - have been ignored or had their recommendations watered down to almost nothing. Some of the foul work of the Howard years has yet to be dismantled, noticably the Northern Territory "intervention". Rudd's government reviewed and increased the rates of age pension - but did nothing for the unemployed and the sick, thus creating a huge gap in welfare service delivery.
But the moment at which Rudd seems to have lost more of his base Labor constituency than any other was his abandonment this April of the Emissions Trading Scheme - and especially, his failure to put any other strategy in place to combat climate change. There seems little doubt that the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change conference (COP 15) last December sapped much of his enthusiasm, as it did unfortunately for many other people worldwide. Rudd's leadership diminished in 2010, he was noticably more defensive and tetchy when pressed about his turning away from the assertation that climate change was "the great moral challenge of our time".
Rudd's performance as Prime Minister was on a downward curve by mid-2010, but was this enough reason to suddenly dump him from the role, or to fear that he would lose the federal election due later this year? No, but there were enough marginal seat-holders prepared to panic over their own jobs, and deep in the denizens of Labor groupthink, Rudd's time was deemed to be up.
We've had just over a fortnight now of Julia Gillard now as Prime Minister, and hasn't it been the moment that the Women's Weekly, Woman's Day and New Idea have been craving for years! To be fair, and in all seriousness, there was no more deserving deputy to take over the role of Prime Minister, and (so far as we know) there was no driving personal motive on her part involved in the overthrow of her predecessor. She has found herself placed in an extraordinary situation, with a federal election to be called sometime in the next few months (and perhaps any time now she wishes) and to deal with some messy policy issues (mining resource tax and the vastly over-blown "asylum seeker" matter being two of them) beforehand. This is the moment for someone with the skill, guile and middle-ground popularity of a 1983 Bob Hawke.
Her handling to this point of "asylum seeker" policy - replacing the Nauru and Manus Island of the John Howard years with Timor Leste, despite not properly consulting its government before making any announcements - is disquieting. If she were to lose the next election it would be a result the Labor Party back room would totally deserve. But would Australia as a whole deserve to be the collateral damage which would eventuate from a tory government under the prime ministership of Tony Abbott?