Thursday, September 21, 2017

Working with Kevin

Happy 60th birthday Kevin Rudd! I’ve no idea if the ex-prime minister of Australia has ever kept a diary, but for the length of his first term as prime minister his chief speechwriter, Tim Dixon, did. Following Rudd’s retirement from domestic politics, Dixon published extracts of his diary on an Australian news website. They are not flattering: ‘The challenge working with Kevin is that he tends to create this highly pressured environment that brings anxiety and terseness, rather than creating an environment of hard working enthusiastic cooperation. It leaves lots of people feeling unhappy.’

Rudd was born on 21 September 1957 in Nambour, Queensland, and grew up on a dairy farm. His childhood was somewhat traumatic as he suffered from chronic illness and then, aged 11, from the death his father. He went to boarding school for a while, and then Nambour State High School where he excelled, not least at public speaking. Aged 15, he joined the Australian Labour Party. He graduated in Asian studies from the Australian National University, Canberra, and then travelled to Taiwan to continue his studies, becoming proficient in Mandarin. In 1981, he married Thérèse Rein, and they have three children. The same year, he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs, serving as a diplomat, at various embassies (including Beijing).

In 1988, Rudd returned to Queensland, where he became chief of staff for Wayne Goss, state opposition leader and then premier. Rudd went on to serve as director general of the state cabinet office from 1992 to 1995, before moving to the private sector, and working as a senior China consultant for the KPMG. After standing unsuccessfully for the seat of Griffith, Queensland, in the federal House of Representatives in 1986, he stood again successfully two years later. He rose through the Australian Labor Party (ALP) ranks, until, after the 2001 election, he was appointed shadow minister for foreign affairs opposing John Winston Howard’s coalition, and was particularly vocal in calling for Australian troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. In 2006, Rudd was chosen as party leader, and the following year, when the ALP was elected to government, he was sworn in as prime minister.

Rudd’s premiership was characterised by policies on health reform and climate change, but he proved in effective, and his popularity soon waned. In 2010 he resigned allowing Julia Gillard to take over the party leadership and as prime minister. He remained in government as minister for foreign affairs.  Infighting within the party, however, continued, and Rudd emerged as leader again in 2013. Less than three months later, though, the ALP lost a general election, and Rudd stepped down as leader and then from parliament altogether. Since then, he has been active in various international roles. Further information is available from Kevin Rudd’s own website, National Archives of Australia, or Wikipedia,

When Rudd took over as leader of the opposition in 2006, Tim Dixon was already working for the office as a senior economic adviser and speechwriter (previously he’d been an international lawyer). He remained chief speechwriter for Rudd throughout his first term as prime minister. Subsequently, he wrote several economics books and co-founded Purpose Europe (see Linkedin for more information). In 2015, he contributed an article to ABC News with extracts from a diary he’d kept while working for Rudd.

Dixon introduces his diary extracts as follows: ‘In politics today, life is lived minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour. A prime minister’s staff is endlessly in motion, caught in the crises of the day yet also charged with developing policy and strategy for the long term. As chief speechwriter, and before that as economics adviser, it felt like having to write 3,000 words of Hemingway prose every day while strapped to a rollercoaster. These diary selections, often scribbled at the back of a plane or in a hotel room at midnight, provide a human insight into life in Kevin Rudd’s and then Julia Gillard’s prime ministerial office.’ Here are some of the diary extracts he published in the article.

24 December 2006
‘I keep telling people - I do feel a lot more like I’m working for the guy who will be Prime Minister. If sheer determination was all that was required I think he’d get the prize. Kevin has an extraordinary, voracious appetite for information and briefings. I have prepared an enormous amount of briefing material for him in the past few days - everything from the Tasmanian forests issues to Commonwealth/State relations to dental health to industrial relations. . .

But this is the difference in the environment of working with Kevin - a lot more energy, a lot more anxiety. And a lot more work. . .’

24 January 2007
‘The challenge working with Kevin is that he tends to create this highly pressured environment that brings anxiety and terseness, rather than creating an environment of hard working enthusiastic cooperation. It leaves lots of people feeling unhappy. . .’

25 November 2007
‘Sunday morning 7am. A new day. Kevin now PM. What a historic night - the largest swing in over 30 years. No ambiguity about that. Howard destroyed by his own ideology. And swings in northern Queensland of up to 14 per cent - absolutely stunning results. . .

And it remains all a bit surreal, a bit unbelievable. But three years of hard yakka, of enormous effort and suspension of everything else in life - three years of that has paid off. . .’

26 April 2008
‘The budget process is preoccupying much of the office at the moment. Kevin is so preoccupied with day to day media that he doesn’t get into the substance of reading the folders full of information that need to be processed for the Budget process - so decisions are being pushed further and further back. . .

I was thinking yesterday why I was successful in finding the voice of Kim Beazley and even Mark Latham but can’t find Kevin’s voice in writing for him. Part of the answer is that he’s the least authentic - and I’m not sure what he thinks his core is, beyond a general Labor belief in compassion and equity. Many of his instincts are opposed to the Labor Party. . .’

6 February 2009
‘The Government announced a $42 billion economic stimulus package this week, as well as announcing a $22 billion deficit for the current financial year as revenues collapse and spending increases. Kevin sure loves big spending programs - but he’s desperate to avoid a recession, and if he pulls that off he’ll be credited with an extraordinary achievement given the severity of the recession in the rest of the world. We’ll see. [A senior staffer] in his office this week made the insightful observation that Kevin - and his chief of staff Alister - is a crisis personality. He feeds off crisis; he makes his best decisions in a crisis. . .’

24 October 2009
‘Wednesday morning [Kevin] decided to fly that afternoon to Hobart to the National Council meeting of the Shop + Distributive Alliance [sic] (SDA) union, the socially conservative retail workers’ union. . .

It makes sense that Kevin courts them as they are a natural ally against a future challenge. It was funny listening to Kevin talking to Senator Jacinta Collins, the SDA-nominated senator from Victoria, at the end of the trip - the nonsense of “you know, I just think it’s important if we’re going to be a long-term government that we develop long-term relationships.” In other words, if he wants to keep the leadership in the long-term, he needs to build a long-term factional base. . . The remarkable thing is how long it has taken him to understand that. He’s been squandering political capital since day one but at last perhaps is realising he needs to invest in it.’

18 May 2010
‘So Rudd has suffered what is I think the second largest collapse in voter support in polling history. But there’s also a way in which this just reflects his own approach to politics. He sees it as a rational process where you can make the right decisions simply by absorbing more and more information about polling research and policy - there’s no sense of the gut feel or intuition. . . He wants to be on the 50 per cent plus one side of every argument.’

10 June 2010
‘Then David Marr wrote a Quarterly Essay - a major piece on the personality of Kevin Rudd, essentially arguing that he is driven by anger and is very much disliked in Canberra. I think it’s a good piece but it misses the point a little in focusing on Kevin being angry - I think the root is insecurity and anxiety, which translates into anger when he feels he is losing control of things. Anyhow, the consequence of this is that Kevin is weakened and needs to work more closely with colleagues. . .’

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