Kevin Rudd: Farewell to Australia's polarising leader

  • 14 November 2013
  • From the section Asia
Media captionKevin Rudd: "Time for me to zip!"

A charming, self-confessed nerd who was lambasted as a back-stabbing megalomaniac, Kevin Rudd's resignation from parliament brings to an end one of the most chaotic periods Australian politics has ever seen.

In a surprise announcement, the former Labor prime minister told his colleagues in Canberra that he was bowing out after a decade and a half as an MP to devote more energy to those closest to him.

"There comes a time in our lives as parliamentarians when our families finally say, "Enough is enough"," he said in a tearful farewell address.

"For me, my family is everything, always has been, always will be, which is why I will not be continuing as a member of this parliament beyond this week."

Even in retreat, the charismatic Queenslander still managed to create one last sensation at the very end of the first full day of the new parliament.

"It absolutely caught everybody by surprise, and that's been fairly typical of Kevin Rudd's career. He knows how to create a moment," said Barry Cassidy, a veteran ABC TV presenter.

'Fighting force'

A fluctuating political journey that began at a federal election in 1998 reached its pinnacle nine years later when the bespectacled Labor leader brought the government of John Howard crashing down after more than a decade in office.

It was a triumph for the former diplomat, and the year that followed saw him at his peak; he formally ratified the Kyoto Protocol, made history with a momentous apology to Australia's first peoples and unveiled a multi-billion dollar stimulus package to insulate the nation against the global financial crisis.

But amid the glory and grand speeches, trouble was rumbling for the man affectionately known as Kevin '07.

His leadership style was seen as autocratic and dysfunctional. There was too much talk, and despite lofty ambitions, the painstaking details of government were often neglected, according to Barry Cassidy.

"He started too many conversations without ending them. He introduced too many policies without actually implementing them, and that was a matter of great frustration to a lot of people," he explained.

Tears flowed in June 2010 when Mr Rudd was spectacularly ousted by his deputy, Julia Gillard, who became Australia's first female prime minister.

The ambush ignited a feud that would ultimately end the parliamentary careers of both Labor heavyweights. Ms Gillard scraped home in an election that soon followed, while humiliated and beaten, the member for the federal seat of Griffith fumed and conspired.

Mr Rudd made his move in June, seizing back the top job from his Welsh-born rival, who was sinking like a rock in opinion polls as another general election loomed.

But Labor's brutal infighting was to be a key factor in its heavy defeat; Julia Gillard retired and her adversary is now following her into the sunset.

"It is the end of an era," said Doug Cameron, a Labor senator. "He (Rudd) made a great contribution (and) kept Labor as a fighting force."

But John McTernan, a former communications director for Julia Gillard, took to Twitter to express his dismay at the former prime minister's record.

"Rudd is also the only Labor leader to destroy a Labor government twice," he wrote.

'Relief and anger'

Few Australians politicians have been so polarising. Condemned as a "bastard" and a "psychopath" by his colleagues, the 56-year-old Labor stalwart formed unlikely friendships with his ideological rivals.

Image caption The Rudd-Gillard leadership tussle tore the Labor Party apart

Julie Bishop, the current foreign minister in the governing Liberal-National coalition, said she had developed a close relationship with him over the years.

"Kevin Rudd was a political enigma. He became one of our most popular prime ministers, as a Mandarin-speaking, self-described nerd, but his fall at the hands of his colleagues was unprecedented in its brutality," she said.

"Kevin certainly had his own way of doing things, often unconventional."

His departure removes the last part of the axis of self-destruction that has been eating away at Labor.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, columnist Tony Wright said Mr Rudd's resignation would provoke mixed feelings.

"There will be relief and anger in equal measure within his party: relief his influence and his simmering, often malevolent ambition would no longer sit as a threat to the party and the leadership he has left behind; anger that he did not go long ago," he told his readers.

Blessed with folksy charm and a sharp mind, a new life beckons for Kevin Rudd, possibly in international diplomacy. He leaves behind an electorate that now faces a by-election early next year.

"I'll miss him," said one middle-aged voter in his home town of Brisbane.

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