Saturday, 12 June 2010

Kevin Rudd: The Incredible Sulk?

David Marr’s Quarterly Essay has received lots of attention this past week. Justifiably so it would seem. After watching a fantastic interview on The 7:30 Report on Monday, I was excited that we would finally get a substantive biographical account of this country’s Prime Minister. It was not so unfortunately. Instead what was uncovered was a standard by the numbers retelling of Rudd’s life, with a bit of pop psychology thrown in for good measure, and dominated largely by journalistic groupthink.

Naturally, much of the publicity surrounding this essay is left to the last page. Marr details an …‘off the record’ conversation with Rudd where the Prime Minister asks the author what the central thesis of his essay was about. Marr describes this, and Rudd flies into a ‘rage’. Marr details this in his 7:30 Report interview:

He very carefully disguises that real person and the real person is a very angry person. Now, anger doesn't disqualify himself from high public office, but I think he's driven by very old angers…. You see the real thing. Don't you feel that there, when the anger starts, you feel in the presence of the real person, and I certainly did when it happened to me.

I can't tell you what he actually said, except to say that he was vivid and eloquent; he was the most himself that I saw him at any time. And I, curiously, enjoyed that experience very much, about 20 minutes of being ticked off by him. No swearing, no stamping, none of that. I put it at about 3.8 on the Richter scale.

Wow, I thought, this essay might finally provide a fascinating insight into what makes him tick as a leader. Political academics notoriously hate to provide psychological profiles of leaders. But I find them eternally fascinating, and it was one of the reasons that I was drawn to studying political leadership in the first place. To understand how the political process works, you must understand how leaders make their decisions. Mark Bahnisch from Larvatus Prodeo criticises this particular example of political psychology arguing that Marr’s hypothesis was ‘tortuously argued’ He goes on:

And it’s one I suspect that informed Marr’s conversations with others, rather than emerged from the evidence he examined. Marr himself highlights the notorious belief in Canberra circles that Rudd’s squeaky clean image was dissonant with the face he presented privately.

Marr contends that Rudd revealed himself as “most human” when he was angry at the conclusion of a dinner he’d had with the writer, and after Marr had told him that his argument in the essay was that Rudd’s “contradictions” were borne of rage. This seems to me to be absurd. I can’t imagine anyone under the same circumstances not being angry at such an insulting, wounding and trivialising line of argument.

In many ways I agree with this, but I think the problem lies not with the argument itself, but with its structure. It strikes me as a wonderful editorial decision to leave the ‘sexy bit’ to the end. However, it was the wrong decision to have Marr’s central thesis characterise Rudd as the ‘choke point in the government’, or as the endless micromanager, which so many journalists claim him to be (in the height of stating the bleeding obvious). I would have thought it would have been better to start the essay with their infamous encounter and seek to characterise Rudd through the prism of his anger, much as Marr attempted to during his 7:30 Report interview.

This in turn explains so much, including the micromanaging, the almost insincere repour with the public, the need to obsessively claim all the power and all the responsibility within his own government. Marr does a good job of painting a biographical account of Rudd in the early portions of the essay, and it has potential to take this route, but for what? To explain that he’s a control freak, well again Marr plays the part of Captain Obvious here. All Prime Ministers need to be control freaks. Far from brilliant, the essay despite its potential is in fact the opposite of what the commentators are suggesting, Marr is not brave enough and should have gone even further, if he did want to explore Rudd’s Power Trip in its fullest context.

As I have previously argued there has yet to be a lot of substance behind Rudd’s rhetorical arsenal. Marr had the makings of what could have been an insightful essay, but instead chose to contribute to the already benign commentary of Rudd’s leadership failures. Marr endeavoured to explore Rudd’s changing relationship with the Australian voting public through an examination of Rudd’s character, but he only really scratched the surface. To me that is more disappointing than if he failed to try in the first place.

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