Latham's Law

Latham’s law

19 February 2012

2:00 AM

19 February 2012

2:00 AM

Later this year, Labor’s new leader (either Stephen Smith or Bill Shorten) will have a strategic decision to make: what to do about Kevin Rudd. As long as Rudd remains in the Labor Caucus there will be no end to the leaks and leadership destabilisation. For the ALP’s political prospects, Kevin is the curse who keeps on giving.

Rudd’s situation is reminiscent of the story of the scorpion and the frog. Stranded next to a flooding river, the scorpion needs to get to the other side, otherwise it will drown. It asks a frog swimming nearby if it can ride on its back to safety. The wary frog replies, ‘But you’re a scorpion, one sting and I’ll be dead.’ The scorpion seeks to reassure its would-be saviour by pointing out, ‘Scorpions can’t swim.

If I sting you in the middle of the river, we’ll both die.’

This satisfies the frog and he allows the scorpion to hitch a ride. Midstream, however, the scorpion strikes, his stinger lodged in the frog’s back. With his dying breath the hapless amphibian asks, ‘Why did you do that? You’ll die as well!’ to which the killer responds, ‘Because I’m a scorpion.’


So, too, Rudd cannot help himself.

As long as someone else holds the Labor leadership, he seeks to bring them down. This is the pattern of his 14 years in Federal parliament under the four leaders with whom he has served: Simon Crean, myself, Kim Beazley and Julia Gillard. 

The former-leader-turned-leaker is a master of two-faced politics. This was clear on Monday night’s Four Corners program, as Rudd allowed a film crew to follow him into bars and cafes (maximising his exposure on the show) while also declining a formal interview (thereby avoiding a direct act of disloyalty). In the history of Australian politics, no one has drawn more publicity to himself, the ultimate media junkie. For Kevin, it’s worse than heroin.

Like the scorpion’s sting, however, treachery can be self-defeating. Rudd the Wrecker has accumulated so many enemies in Canberra he is now incapable of gathering a cohesive cabinet around him. If he returns as leader, Gillard and Wayne Swan will most likely go to the backbench, briefing the media on Rudd’s failed first term as Prime Minister and his deceit in getting the job a second time.

The last time they changed leaders, Labor’s powerbrokers failed to anticipate Rudd’s thirst for revenge and the malicious leaks which sabotaged their 2010 election campaign. Surely this time they can see the unworkability of a resurrected Rudd government.

In the modern Labor party, no one serves revenge cold. It is consumed à la carte, straight off the hotplate. Gillard, Swan and many others would pour straight into Rudd, rendering his administration no less chaotic than the one it replaced. For this reason alone, the party needs to make a clean break, turning to a third leadership option.


In this respect, Rudd has fouled his own nest. Given Gillard’s chronic inability to connect with the Australian people, the Foreign Minister simply had to wait for her to fall over.

He could have moved around the world’s diplomatic circles, harassing Hillary Clinton’s appointments secretary, big-noting himself at the UN while also, for domestic political purposes, giving the appearance of being a team player.

Eventually a desperate Labor party would have come to him, restoring his leadership as its best way of avoiding electoral slaughter. History will record Rudd’s destabilisation of Gillard as the greatest own goal since Andrés Escobar.

The challenge for Smith/Shorten will be to curb Heavvie Kevvie’s chronic disloyalty. Sending him to the backbench has logical appeal. Or they could revive my brainwave from 2004, making him the Minister for Pacific Islander Affairs. One night on the soft sands of a tropical atoll, Rudd might drink from a bad kava-keg or be speared during a haka gone wrong. These are the things for which the next Labor leader will be praying.


A friend of mine in Western Sydney, who has never been involved in party politics, calls Gillard ‘the Red Robot’ — a reference to her slow and overly-methodical speaking style.

This has nothing to do with her being a woman. Like many Australians, he has struggled to identify ‘the real Julia’ — an issue Gillard herself placed on the public agenda.

The Prime Minister is a victim of excessive media training. In private she is fun-loving and spontaneous. Yet the spin doctors have convinced her to be highly controlled and robotic in public. Recently Gillard complained:

I don’t remember people looking at John Howard and saying, ‘Gee, I wish he’d be warmer and cuddlier and more humorous and more engaging in his press conferences.’

For all his faults, the public at least regarded Howard as authentic. The private man was little different to the public figure. With Gillard, however, they sense fakery at work. The Red Robot has no one to blame but herself.

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