All the talk about Kevin Rudd June 23, 2007
One warm, rainy Saturday in Brisbane in early April 1988, a promising young diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was casually reading the newspaper in a bus heading from the inner-western suburb of St Lucia to the city.
Kevin Michael Rudd, 30, had been to the University of Queensland campus that day to potentially recruit staff for the department.
But as the bus journeyed along Coronation Drive, a right-hand column advertisement on page 7 of The Courier-Mail's Employment section caught his eye. "Private Secretary," the ad read. "Office of the Leader of the Opposition.
This is a senior position on the Leader's personal staff." At the tail of the notice was the state ALP creed: Queensland. A Stronger State. A Better Life.
Brisbane at that moment was a lightning rod for change. The World Exposition would open in three weeks and bring the city international attention.
A month earlier, Wayne Goss, 37 - the seeker of a new, trusted private secretary - had won the opposition leadership unopposed, usurping the affable Neville Warburton. In late November the previous year, the unthinkable had occurred: the seemingly immovable Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen had resigned as premier after 19 years.
And the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Corruption was still the finest show in town after eight months, though Slim Dusty and Richard Clayderman - on Australian Bicentennial tours - were passing through. The inquiry would have almost a year to run.
As young Rudd travelled in the bus back to town, with the great sailed pavilions of Expo '88 rising above the new South Bank like Bedouin tents and, stranded in the carnival chaos of it all, a monstrous globe of the world, there seemed little reason for him to return to his home state and halt the trajectory of an already brilliant diplomatic career. He was temporarily based in Canberra after stints in Stockholm and Beijing, and it had been hinted to him his next posting would be London - as First Secretary responsible for Intelligence Liaison, in the Office of National Assessments.
Why would he abandon all that to join a small, poorly resourced staff toiling under an opposition leader with no surety of higher office?
But something was nagging at the ambitious Rudd. He had, earlier in the year, unsuccessfully tried to get in touch with the then defence minister, Kim Beazley - a tentative step into the world of politics. Now he was faced with Goss's advertisement.
That day, April 9, The Courier-Mail reported that hundreds of mourners had packed Sydney's St Andrew's Cathedral for the funeral of the former Liberal prime minister William McMahon. One of the many attendees was the federal opposition leader, John Howard.
The paper also carried a report that recent heavy rain had lifted the capacity of the Wivenhoe Dam from 19 per cent to 30 per cent. Council said it was too early to remove sprinkler restrictions. And Fatal Attraction was still scaring the pants off cinema audiences.
Yet it was the ad that held Rudd's attention: "Duties include administration of the Leader's office, research, analysis, general policy development and advice (and) liaison with Members of Parliament, business and trade union leaders. Salary level will be determined between the range of $37,149 (minimum) to $45,060 (maximum) per annum."
Rudd clipped the ad and in a stroke changed the course of his, and potentially the nation's, future.
RUDD'S TENURE UNDER FORMER PREMIER WAYNE Goss is the only tangible view we have of him in elected government, the singular portal into how he formulated policy, dealt with staff and ministers, prioritised business and interacted in an office of power. Is it possible, despite the passage of time, to draw out of these years a template for future governance if indeed Rudd claims the prime ministership of Australia at the end of the year?
"If people want an impression of what a Rudd government would mean, they need to look very carefully at the Goss era in Queensland," says former premier Rob Borbidge. "My advice would be: look very closely, Australia, at what happened in that period, particularly from 1992-96. That's the road map."
Rudd was one of more than 80 applicants for the job of private secretary. Goss had wanted "new blood" in the position, not an insider. He shortlisted five people, then travelled to Canberra for the opening of the new Parliament House in May 1988.
Rudd met him at his hotel, and Goss has repeatedly told the story of that first encounter and how, when he next looked at his watch, two hours had flown past. Rudd, the former Eumundi boy, was offered the position.
Rudd later alluded to the reasons for his shift in profession in Jamie Walker's 1995 book Goss: A Political Biography by saying of his old job in Foreign Affairs:
"I think I came to the conclusion that your ability to actively influence any direction of policies which resulted in anything actually changing of any substance was remote, so I began to find that professionally frustrating."
Yet he implied to author Robert Macklin in Kevin Rudd: The Biography, launched yesterday in Brisbane, that his decision was fuelled by a degree of political idealism: "I was a Queenslander and I wanted to do my bit to get rid of the Bjelke-Petersen regime. He'd just gone himself, but the regime was still here."
Rudd's wife, Therese Rein, told Macklin the Goss job opportunity was a "gestalt" moment. Whatever the motivation, he took leave without pay from DFAT and returned to Brisbane to take up his new post on the last Saturday in June, 1988.
He was at work in Goss's office the next day. Tim Grau, a research officer and policy analyst for Goss who joined the team shortly after Rudd, remembers: "There were only four or five of us. Kevin, Joe Begley, Lindsay Marshall, myself and, later, Michael Stephenson (who would go on to become a political secretary to British prime minister Tony Blair) joined. We basically did everything, it was all hands on deck.
"We were incredibly busy. My views of (Rudd) have not changed from those days. He's a prolific and prodigious worker and an incredible strategic mind in terms of policy, more so than political. He had an ability to get across policy issues and strategically think through what was the best option and provide that advice to Wayne."
The team operated between offices in Margaret Street and that of the leader of the opposition at Parliament House in George Street. Office equipment was antique and Goss's staff remained under-resourced.
Former Goss government minister and sitting ALP member for Murrumba, Dean Wells, remembers when Rudd started work. "I felt he was extremely sharp and extremely across it," he says. "When I'd heard that Wayne was getting a former diplomat, I expected something a little bit different from Kevin. From the start, he behaved more like a politician and less like a diplomat."
Another former Goss minister and now Anglican deacon, Pat Comben, says: "I thought it took him a few months to perhaps understand state politics. My recollection is that each time I met him during those first few months, he clearly knew the context. But he came from a vastly different place.
"Within three months he was on top of issues.
It didn't matter if you were seeing him informally for dinner at his place or elsewhere, there was no longer a case of worrying that he didn't understand the context. It was remarkable. He could recall conversations word perfectly."
Borbidge adds: "It became very clear that the Labor Party tactics and the opposition generally at that time relied on him enormously. (Goss and Rudd) were fellow travellers. Wayne was the articulate, intelligent, highly presentable front man, and Kevin was the detailed implementer of the strategy. Kevin basically did the spade work."
Part of that initial spade work included enriching Goss's position. On discovering an absence of business contacts with the office of the opposition leader, Rudd went out and personally built a portfolio. He later told The Australian Financial Review he compiled a dossiaacér of the state's top 40 companies and obtained their annual reports: "I identified their CEOs and directors and I tracked them down. I organised meetings between myself and Wayne and all of those people, as well as all the peak industry bodies in the state." It was an initiative seized and orchestrated in Rudd's emerging telltale manner: methodical, dogged, ambitious and, ultimately, successful.
What Goss and Rudd were doing, along with then campaign strategist Wayne Swan (now federal shadow treasurer), was tilling the soil for future power. They prepared "transition to government" plans. Readied themselves for the monstrous task of disentangling and cleaning out the detritus, both public and hidden, of an entrenched National Party. Four months before the election, in late 1989, they released their public sector reform manifesto, Making Government Work. Much of this was co-ordinated by Rudd.
They finally got their historic chance on December 2, 1989, after 32 years of National Party rule. Funnily, the old regime and Kevin Rudd were the same age. It was time for the new, young, smart generation to take control.
DESPITE A HUGE DEGREE OF PREPARATION FOR winning government and the subsequent transition, Goss and his team were in a peculiar predicament. The public wanted change, but at what pace do you implement it? You're damned if it's done too quickly, and damned if you appear to be dragging your feet. Looming over the victory was the Fitzgerald Report and its recommendations, released on July 3 of that year.
Goss had been given a complicated, unprecedented mandate, both victory baton and hand grenade. He told Queensland in his first press conference as premier-elect that his immediate priority was to "hose everybody down".
Rudd now had real power to effect change as the premier's aide-de-camp. (It doesn't seem a coincidence that the first sentence uttered by Rudd in his maiden speech before federal parliament as the newly elected member for Griffith on November 11, 1998, was: "Politics is about power.")
He could apply his uncanny ability to attend to policy or governmental minutiae while assessing the arc of its long-term impact. He very swiftly became the most influential bureaucrat in Queensland, a true mandarin of a modern, progressive type that the state had never seen. He was well versed in the machinations of the public service, courtesy of his DFAT experience. His nature was thorough and meticulous. And he thrived on the game of backroom politics. As acquaintances have said, he approached his job as if it were a giant puzzle or chess contest.
Academic and political commentator Professor Ken Wiltshire, who consulted to the Goss government on education and federalism issues, says: "You have to distinguish between the first period of the Goss government (1989-1992) and the second period (1992-1996). In the first period Kevin was pretty pivotal, he brought what we call today a 'whole of government' perspective." After the election victory, Rudd went from private secretary to being Goss's chief of staff. By necessity, and by his nature, he shifted up a gear.
"I didn't like our first couple of meetings because he clearly was coming with a message," says Pat Comben. "Did he represent the premier? What's this guy doing? I thought I was going to have this discussion in Cabinet in a week's time, not today. But eventually he showed me he knew what he was doing."
Rudd was hands-on. While Goss ultimately made the final decisions, the passage of anything leading to that decision had Rudd's fingerprints all over it. Some would say he was performing his job as chief of staff to the letter. Others weren't so sure. One senior policy adviser who worked under Rudd at the time, and who declined to be named, says: "Rudd was a master at using his special position as having 'just talked to the premier'. His favourite phrase was, 'I've just had a word with the premier and what we're doing is X'. That was the end of it. Nobody knew how to take this, whether it was literal or metaphorical."
He was also gathering a reputation for being fearsome and intimidating. It was in the first six months of government that he acquired his now notorious nickname, Dr Death. Professor Brian Head, director of the University of Queensland's Institute for Social Science Research, initially worked as a policy executive director for the premier's department after being personally interviewed and hired by Rudd. He quickly became aware of the nickname. "People have told me different renditions of that name, that it was related to the 'death stare' he had," he says. "The death stare indicated that what you'd said was completely ridiculous and would you like to step outside and commit hara-kiri."
Peter Coaldrake, now vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, was chairman of Goss's Public Sector Management Commission in the early 1990s. He says the nickname was just a bit of fun. He has no clue to its source, but hints it might have been authored by Labor Party stalwart the late Tom Burns. Staffers at the time confirmed Rudd and Coaldrake had their own personal wordplay - Rudd dubbed him "Duck" (as in Coal-drake), and Coaldrake referred to Rudd as "Death". Other monikers for Rudd included "Toecutter" and "Pixie Head".
"The nicknames were just banter, it was of no consequence," says Coaldrake. "But he was employed to be tough. The chief of staff to the premier is not a light role. It's a critical gatekeeping role, the vetting of quality, what's going on, who's seeing who, and Kevin was on top of all of those matters."
Wiltshire has another perspective: "He was in such a powerful position in the bureaucracy that I don't think anybody really took him on. I never saw a confrontation and I don't know that a situation would have arisen where somebody would have really challenged him. A bit of robust debate is probably a new experience for Kevin."
In 1991, the government established the Office of Cabinet. This was a centralised sorting house for government business based on models in NSW, Victoria and Britain. It gave organisation to and created levels of excellence for cabinet submissions. It was nothing new to governments around the world, but was unseen and untested in Queensland. Rudd was appointed its director-general.
And it was in this role that his true talents and flaws were simultaneously exposed. "I think most of us didn't like it, we didn't know why it was there," recalls Comben. "At that time Labor hadn't seen government for more than 30 years. When they set up the Office of Cabinet, and you were aware people were looking to us as being fairly young, junior and naive, you wondered, what is this going to do?"
The idea for the office had its gestation when Goss was still in opposition. It was meant to reform, streamline and professionalise the workings of government, and act as an ideas filter. According to John Wanna, adjunct professor at Griffith University and political and public policy expert, "Goss took over as a lawyer, he wanted to professionalise the party and was appalled by some of the policy work by Labor in opposition. He wanted to improve the policy-making process. I think (Rudd) and Goss had very similar ways of operating. Everything was like a legal brief - it was to be questioned, interrogated. They had to be convinced every time that something was necessary.
"They wanted control over the policy process, what was going into the ideas, over the timing of announcements." Borbidge concurs: "It was Kevin who really was all-powerful in the Goss government. Cabinet submissions had to be cleared through the Cabinet Office The online departments were really neutered from policy development."
Says Wiltshire: "The Office of Cabinet became so centralised that it froze ministers out. (It) grew to about 120 people, it was just incredible, and you had this great monolith in the centre of government cutting off the premier and the government from public opinion and community reaction and the expertise of ministers and departments.
"You could argue it was part of the reason they (eventually) lost office. It was symptomatic of a centralised system strangling policy advice and the community network."
Head was in charge of policy planning and intergovernmental relations within the Office. "Kevin was the brains of the outfit," he says. "He designed and named the structure itself and wrote the dot points for how we should approach and perform certain tasks, like how we should structure a cabinet briefing note, how to structure a brief to the premier, all these types of things. He drew on his experience in DFAT. He was extremely keen that we were the most professional group in the public service. He wanted it to be very smart, very businesslike."
As soon as the Office went to work, it attracted both cautious plaudits and criticism. "Inevitably there was disenchantment, and I think there was more unexpressed disquiet than expressed disquiet," Head adds. "The whole point, if you're a public servant, is not to rock the boat and not be disloyal.
It was how the government wanted it done. The real issue then becomes: where there are issues of policy controversy and where the government's position remains to be decided, what are the dynamics between the central agency - agrà la Kevin Rudd - and the line departments in terms of problem-solving and having a debate?"
Critics inside and outside government believed a barrier had been thrown around the premier, and the only way through it was via the connecting door between the Goss and Rudd offices, known by staff as the "catflap".
The government's reform of the public service became a further touchstone for hostility and confusion. As Goss says in another book published this month, Nicholas Stuart's Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography (Scribe): "We inherited 27 public service departments and in only two were the departmental heads chosen after their positions had been properly advertised. What we were doing wasn't just some sort of ruthless political bloodbath."
In the first four weeks of Goss's rule, 18 department heads were removed and nine departments abolished. The Public Sector Management Commission was installed to oversee the cleanout. (Though Coaldrake says the public service workforce never depleted in number, contrary to popular myth.)
Almost immediately, the public sector became aware of something known as the "gulag" - a room where unwanted public servants were sent to contemplate retirement or resignation. In the gulag, they were given no tasks to perform. "Anyone who had fallen foul of the new government, or people who weren't trusted, were basically dealt with in that way," says Borbidge. "What we saw subsequent to that was, in my view, the politicisation of the public service in Queensland, which had been quite unparalleled."
Wiltshire says both Goss and later Borbidge had gulags within their government infrastructure. "The Labor Party created its own gulag. They dumped two dozen people into an office and gave them nothing to do. It's true the Coalition did the same thing when they were in office. It was a very demoralising process."
Coaldrake has heard the term but says he doesn't believe it actually existed: "If there was a room, I do not know its geographical location. That's an honest answer. It certainly didn't exist as a geographical location when I was in office. I think it was a metaphor for what, throughout public services, is known as 'gardening leave'."
There was also Rudd's demeanour. While he was universally applauded for his astonishing intellect, his bedside manner was not always affable. Sallyanne Atkinson, Brisbane lord mayor from 1985-91, recalls Rudd as "glowering. I wondered why he was so sour." He was also perceived to be thin-skinned. According to Ross Willims, Rudd's deputy in the Office of Cabinet from 1991-1995 and now a vice-president at BHP Billiton, "I think anyone who takes pride in their work doesn't take criticism well, do they?
Kevin was no different to anyone else in that regard."
Former Goss staffer Michael Stephenson, now a public affairs consultant for Four Communications in London, says: "People have to remember these were difficult times. Some tough decisions had to be made - reform, election promises - and Kevin made them. I wouldn't say he was intimidating. There are people who are loud and throw things. He was quiet. He was there to get things done."
However, Head remembers a meeting over Native Title issues in 1991 during which Rudd was "unnecessarily abrupt" with Aboriginal public servant Marcia Langton, now Foundation Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. "If I remember correctly, there was a group of about 20 people in this 'think tank' that Kevin had organised about how to deal with (Native Title) and who should do the consultation," Head says.
"Goss and Rudd and one or two other people went up to Cape York and consulted with a few communities and Marcia Langton said in this meeting, 'I think I should go and we should take some other indigenous people.' Kevin cut her to the quick and told her that the premier and he decided who travelled, and she wouldn't be travelling. It was just unnecessarily humiliating. She didn't stay much longer."
Langton resigned in August 1991. She later wrote of a visit by Goss and his team to Aurukun in Far North Queensland: "Most of the government delegation behaved like rich American Peace Corps kids on their first stint in the Third World. They flinched and grinned, discomfited by culture shock and how the other half lives "
Comben says Rudd was firm but fair. "I've seen him tear strips off people but he'd keep smiling. He knew where he had to get. He was the consummate manager. He was brilliant. If you were not a senior cabinet minister prepared to stand up and put another argument, some people would have found him intimidating and querying where he was in the system, but that was not the view of most of the senior members of cabinet."
Joe Begley, Goss's former principal press secretary and now media adviser to Warren Pitt, the state Minister for Communities, Disability Services and Seniors, agrees: "I've got no doubt (that) if he wanted to be blunt in dealing with people he was quite capable of that." Rudd and Goss were simply putting in the discipline and hard work the times required, says Coaldrake. "People with a strong personality and huge intellect can be imposing figures. I've got no doubt Kevin was such a figure. I'm sure of that."
Several colleagues from the period attest to Rudd's awareness of his own intelligence and its impact. Wiltshire observes that Rudd was more a "boffin or academic" and was inspired by intelligence and ideas rather than "personality or interpersonal modality".
Dr Scott Prasser, a senior lecturer and policy analyst at the University of the Sunshine Coast, adds: "Rudd is extremely bright. I think he likes to show that he's bright.
"He reminds me of those people who like to fill in those end-of-year questionnaires, you know, 300 questions, and they like to tell you they got 299 right, while the rest of us don't take it too seriously and can't recall who won a certain cricket match."
GOSS WAS RE-ELECTED IN 1992 AND, BY ONLY A one-seat majority, in 1995. Then suddenly, the dream was over. In 1996 the loss of the North Queensland seat of Mundingburra in a by-election handed minority government to a National-Liberal Coalition led by Borbidge. The public had disconnected with Goss and the government. Environmental protests, a dispirited public service and a perceived aura of government arrogance ended the new order. Goss, despite improving the state's economy, also suffered from the nation's disaffection with Labor prime minister Paul Keating, who lost in a landslide to John Howard in the federal election of early March 1996.
Rudd had announced his resignation from the Office of the Cabinet in October 1994 after gaining ALP preselection for the federal seat of Griffith in Brisbane's inner east. Controversy ensued through to mid-1995 when he accepted a secondary but well-remunerated position in the premier's department while still running for Canberra. Goss was forced to publicly defend Rudd. He doorknocked tens of thousands of houses in the gentrified suburbs of Morningside and Bulimba, and wrote constituents three-page pamphlets extolling his virtues in the long lead-up to the election. When he lost in the 1996 rout, The Courier-Mail remarked: "The electorate, to hear party branch people talking, was also having trouble with Rudd's far-from-honed people skills. Perhaps because of his past, he just seemed uncomfortable at public gatherings, sporting events, supporter nights."
Through sheer tenacity, Rudd was victorious two years later. Many were surprised at his bid for a political future, including his great mentor, Goss, who declined to be interviewed for this story. (Similarly, Rudd's office did not respond to Qweekend's request for an interview.)
"I don't see Kevin as a politician," says Wiltshire. "He really is a policy analyst and adviser and fixer. I just can't see him on the hustings. That to me doesn't suit the nature I knew. He's strong on policy design but not on implementation or follow-through. Next day equals new issue." Head adds: "It's one thing to be an adept general as leader of the opposition and another thing to run the whole battle as commander-in-chief. I think the good news, if he were to become prime minister, is that he has previously tasted both sides of those roles and understands the difference. A key issue would be: does he trust his senior colleagues to get on with the business, or is he going to fall back on a kind of a command and control approach to cabinet?"
There is a lot to admire about Rudd, says Griffith University's John Wanna, but he emphasises that public perception of the opposition leader should not be discounted. "I think his strength is that steely eye, the policy stuff," he says. "The weakness or the downside is, does he engender empathy and people's goodwill? Do people respect him as a person? I think they're the sorts of things he's going to have to wrestle with. Rudd has to capture likeability, an empathy. If he's still considered a cold fish and analytical, it's not going to transfer to a lot of votes."
Former Goss minister Wells theorises: "Greatness is a function not so much of the performance but of the stage on which the performance is delivered. Rudd of years ago would have, given the same stage, produced a very similar performance (to today)."
Stephenson adds that Rudd, after several visits to Number 10 Downing Street, including a couple of meetings with Blair, had been extremely impressive and could hold his head up with some of the pre-eminent leaders of the world. Back home, however, there is a lingering consensus in some quarters that the tremors from Rudd's legacy as Queensland's top bureaucrat are still being felt today, almost 20 years after he answered that ad in the Saturday newspaper. Was he simply doing his job to the best of his ability in difficult times? Or did Goss and Rudd's zest for reform, for centralised perfection in process rather than nursing through policy implementation, for government orchestrated by dot points rather than a multiplicity of human voices, strangle itself to death?
"In my view it's part of the problem why we don't have enough water today (in Queensland)," Borbidge concludes, "why infrastructure is so far behind the eight-ball; it's part of the problem that, despite the fact the government is spending record amounts of money on essential programs, there's still criticism of their implementation. I think we're still suffering from a public sector that is excessively process-driven and not sufficiently outcome-driven.
"That's always a hard task for any government - you've got to find a reasonable balance. But we're still out of whack there, and that can be directly attributable to the Goss era."