Features Australia

Killing it

They were the political grotesques that political junkies can’t get enough of. Thank god they’re back.

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

Thank God for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. What tremendous gifts that pair are to the nation.

There was a moment there when yet another generation of political writers looked doomed to write even more books about the bloody Whitlam dismissal to occupy their days. Then June 24, 2010 came along and hallelujah, we were saved.

Kevin and Julia are our Punch and Judy. The power couple who were so perfect for each other and what choice was there but for them to tear each other apart? And you love them. Yes, you do, you lap it all up. Anyone who says ‘Oh, I just can’t bear to hear another word of it, can’t they let it rest,’ is lying: they’ve probably just secretly bought Gillard’s book.

The Kevin-Julia wars have all the ingredients of the supreme trashy political thriller. All they lacked was an actual murder: does the budget surplus count or was that just a highway robbery? Gossip, late-night backstabbings, some really over-the-top psycho characters.

What separates this Rudd-Gillard penny dreadful from the high literature of the Hawke-Keating wars is that the latter duo have a real policy legacy to fight over. But sometimes you just want Game of Thrones rather than Proust, don’t you?

Of course, this trash cried out for the TV screen and there could be no better vehicle than the ABC’s The Killing Season. The story may be sensationalism, but Sarah Ferguson’s doco certainly ain’t. It’s an example of what this country’s media (and what our sometimes sorely lacking ABC) can really achieve.

The Killing Season is not the first ABC ‘record of a government’ style documentary – Fran Kelly’s The Howard Years is a treat and 1993’s Labor in Power is a masterpiece – but the latest dark tale has the advantage of sporting much less of that boring policy reform, nation-changing stuff. This is the story of two very different operators and how they drove each other into an abyss.

Sarah Ferguson is undoubtedly a big part of this series’ success. Her well-tuned, BBC-style, ‘I didn’t come down in the last shower’ interrogation technique is used to great effect, and God knows it’s needed because Rudd and Gillard have constructed two alternative universes of memory. But for the most of the first episode, Ferguson is very much in the background, letting her subjects bring the story to life. The balance is testament to what a gifted interviewer she is and to her producer Deb Masters (of Four Corners).

But the stars are obviously Rudd and Gillard, and they really give you the goods. The six years of Labor government could be (however unfairly) boiled down to the parable of the loony and the liar. Well, this documentary probably won’t dispel that image from your mind – whether that’s the intention or not.

Julia Gillard is, well, as wooden and unconvincing as ever. Now, I strongly suggest people watch her parliamentary performances and recent footage of her at writers’ festival love-ins because that funny, warm, entertaining figure we all hear rumours of (from insiders of every political persuasion) can be glimpsed.

But as with her Ray Martin outing, this interview is more proof that looking into the camera really does suck out whatever soul Julia Gillard has. She ducks and weaves, she repeats herself, you never know what her game is. And when she says of her more frequently friendly chats with Wayne Swan post-GFC ‘none of them were leadership discussions, none of them were leadership discussions,’ a nation can only roll its eyes.

As for Kevin Rudd, now there’s a matinee idol in the making. No wonder most of the imagery in the title sequence of this doco is of Rudd staring blankly. He cuts a most terrifying image at times. You can almost see the resentment bubble. It’s not hard to envisage him only just resisting a scream of ‘HULK! ANGRY!’ every time Gillard’s name comes up.

There are glimpses of the Opposition Leader Kevin who could dance with Kerri-Anne in the morning and wax lyrical about the Iraq War at night, who could reach out to aspirational voters, talk about spending cuts – everything Bill Shorten should be. Of course, it turned out to be all smoke and mirrors but you can’t help thinking some centrist Kevin ‘07 magic is what Bill (if he survives this documentary) needs. And yet that Rudd fades into the figure of today. Slightly plumper, definitely bitter. He always looks on edge, about to burst. To demonstrate the pain of leadership transition, he recalls walking down to Kim Beazley’s office in 2006 with Beazley’s PA in tears.

‘She’d been in politics a long time and she knew what this meant.’ It’s touching, it’s affecting, he must feel really sorry for that poor woman out of a job. Shame about that terrifying smirk on his face. Then the smirk evaporates when Ferguson asks if Rudd remembered that moment when Gillard walked, lethally, into his office.

And the supporting cast! Wayne Swan doing his usual Droopy the Dog impersonation. Greg Combet brilliant in his contempt for Rudd, saying he never thought he was a good egg even after that 2007 victory. Sam Dastyari caught in the shadows. Jenny Macklin contemplating a Rudd who was both a monster to his colleagues and a saint to those in need. But no Shorten; he refused Ferguson’s interview. Shorten has called this ‘history’ but it may turn into current affairs if any revelations come to light in later episodes.

The ABC are holding back episode 2, on the fall of Rudd and the coup, because of its new shocking details. You wonder what secrets are left but you can trust Ferguson and Masters to uncover them. What they’ve extracted is already extraordinary. Shorten has succeeded in painting over the civil wars but they were bound to revive. Handling the past will be his biggest test: he’s already burdened by old Rudd-Gillard policy duds and his inability to spell out spending cuts. Troy Bramston in the Australian was right to say Shorten should have faced up to Ferguson. He’s letting others define history and therefore his future. After all, the only person Kevin and Julia hate more than each other is Bill. This political thriller is compelling television and brilliant political history. It is fair and balanced. And, well, Rudd and Gillard are just fabulous political grotesques. Tuesday for the next two weeks will be Killing Season nights for political junkies.

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