Rudd must prove return is based on substance

Haig Patapan on steps, arm on bannister, red background
Professor Haig Patapan.

By Professor Haig Patapan

Kevin Rudd’s return as Labor leader and PM poses new challenges for his legitimacy.

On the one hand, Mr Rudd’s return can be viewed as righting a wrong, repairing the injustice committed against him and by extension to the Australian people. He can therefore claim, as he did in his speech, that he is continuing from where he left off in 2010.

It also seems, however, that he has simply repeated what Julia Gillard did to him. She was the incumbent Prime Minister and Mr Rudd has now used the factional machinery of the Labor Party to depose a sitting Prime Minister.

One way to overcome this moral ambiguity in the way he has assumed office is by guiding the discussion beyond character and personality and focusing on policy to regain credibility and justify Rudd redux.

And this is a difficult game to play If he adopts and advances many of Julia Gillard’s policies, the implication is that he has merely replaced her because of her personal unpopularity rather than as an advocate of alternative policy. It suggests her removal was a brazen exercise in populism, if not personal ambition.

This will be unavoidable when he promotes Julia Gillard’s achievements, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the Gonski education policy which was passed into federal law on the day of her demise.

But to show his return is not totally based on character and personality, Mr Rudd will also have to initiate new policies of his own, in some cases repudiating some of hers.

This combination of old and new policies will return the focus to the leadership and the moral question of why change had to take place.

This is exactly what happened to Julia Gillard. She did not explain clearly, until it was much too late, why they got rid of Kevin Rudd. Her claim that a good government had lost its way tried to retain the achievements of the government without singling out Mr Rudd’s leadership faults.

As a result this ambiguity made people suspect that he was a victim of ambition and disloyalty. Subsequent events, such as the leaks during the election and Julia Gillard’s adoption of a carbon tax seemed to confirm these suspicions. Julia Gillard paid a high price in legitimacy for her inability to explain and justify why she removed Kevin Rudd.

Mr Rudd has a difficult task to prevent the same happening to him. The moral conundrum he faces is to defend his removal of Julia Gillard, which looks identical to what happened to him in 2010, as righting a wrong rather than an exercise in personal ambition and retribution.

Professor Haig Patapan is Director of Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy.