Canberra – particularly the Australian National University – has always been strong for Kevin Rudd.
ANU was where he studied Mandarin, participated in an evangelical study group, carried out cleaning duties at the home of Laurie Oakes, and met and married Therese Rein, his fellow ANU student, before joining the Department of Foreign Affairs as a junior diplomat.
So last Friday was no exception with ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt making much of Rudd’s return to his academic roots as he introduced Stan Grant’s conversation with the former prime minister in the School of Music’s venerable Llewellyn Hall.
The occasion was the launch of the first volume of Rudd’s book Not for the Fainthearted – a personal reflection on life, politics and purpose 1957-2007. Schmidt noted that this tome was indeed Volume I. There would be a second, offering further revelations, to follow. Then he went down to seat himself beside Therese Rein, in front row reserved seats, both looking slightly apprehensive , despite the clearly pro-Rudd audience, many of them Chinese students or Chinese gentlemen attempting to look as much like students as possible.
Grant, to his credit, didn’t let Rudd off lightly. When Rudd talked about his ‘shaving mirror moment of truth’ Grant took up the issue of the complaints that, as prime minister, Rudd had obsessed about details, micro-managed, hadn’t been a team player, and was quickly rebutted, Rudd affirming that he was on good terms with all his staff, that he had gone back and ben welcomed by all. So there.
Interestingly, the Rudd childhood was brought up. He had only been able to attend university because Gough Whitlam had abolished fees, he claimed and, when young, his mother has made it conditional that he and his brother play with the children of an Aboriginal railway worker’s family to make the young Rudds realised the unimportance of skin colour.
Although this may have been a clever ploy to stop another probing question from Grant, it was effective; his audience melted with sympathy for the Rudd family “we were poor” in rural Queensland.
He touched – briefly, but tellingly, on the part played by factions in his removal from the office of Prime Minister, and glances were exchanged down the rows of seats. “He’s talking about Shorten, isn’t he?” In 2007 Rudd had swept to power with a 23-seat victory, a Rudd-slide, as the media hailed it, bringing Labor in from 11 Opposition years, unseating John Howard, the longest-serving prime minister since Menzies. Gillard ended his run in two and half year.
And then, briskly, brought about by Professor Schmidt, it was time for questions from the floor. Unsurprisingly, two were Chinese, each clutching – as if to establish credibility – weighty, $40 copies of Not for the Fainthearted that they would later line up to have signed and have a photograph taken with Ken Lu.
One question related to Chinese political ideology and Rudd, ever the diplomat, managed to play a nice straight bat, defending Australian values while accepting that China will be the coming regional power house, a response for which he was thanked effusively.
Rudd, bathed in golden light on the stage at Llewellyn Hall, remarked on something he had been told by Wayne Swan, something he’d remembered. “Politics, it’s the best game in town” Swan had said. Yet, listening to Kevin Rudd, a prime minister, toppled by his own deputy and party, you had to wonder if he believed that still.
As the long line of those wishing to have their books signed (“Please don’t take too long with your photographs” urged the efficient lady from ANU Co-op Books) wound its way towards the desk where Rudd sat, Therese Rein lounged at one of the outdoor tables where School of Music students were earlier drinking beer and eating potato crisps from the packet.
Canberra, National Capital, revolving door for careers. Even for prime ministers.
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