It’s the same old song on the way down

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“What is it in our system that makes it impossible for men such as Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd to prosper in the rough and tumble of federal politics, particularly when they are committed to policies that the great majority approves?” asks “The Gadfly” columnist ROBERT MACKLIN.

THERE’S something quite eerie about the way our recently discarded prime ministers all perceive their tenure, their achievements and their downfall in exactly the same light. 

Robert Macklin.

Malcolm Turnbull’s recent performance on “7.30” was a classic. It might equally have come from the lips of Kevin or Tony; only the blessed Julia has risen above the scrum.

Invariably, they cry, their rise to the top had nothing whatever to do with personal aggrandisement; they were actuated solely by a selfless desire to make the world a better place. 

And despite the shocking behaviour of their enemies, they have scores of remarkable achievements immediately to hand. The wonder is that we’re unaware that we now live in a paradise of their making. But perhaps that’s because they were cut down before the final curtain.

The two I know best, Kevin and Malcolm, are like the opposing faces of a single coin. In 2007 I wrote “Kevin Rudd: The Biography with a second edition a year after his victory in the polls. And, as it happened, I interviewed Malcolm for a book on another fascinating figure of recent Australian history in early January this year.

Both men were emotionally shattered by their fall from the peak. Overnight, both aged physically, if not emotionally. Both reflected on their parental losses, Kevin of his father, Malcolm of his mum, each of whom rejected them as little boys. And each found lasting love in their strong, supportive wives.

Both could easily have risen to the top of the parties that opposed them. Both were highly intelligent and had distinguished themselves in business and diplomacy before entering politics. So they were both first-class prime ministerial material. Yet both failed Australia in the most vital policy issue confronting us – action to combat climate change.

So, what went wrong? What is it in our system that makes it impossible for such men to prosper in the rough and tumble of federal politics, particularly when they are committed to policies that the great majority approves? 

The easy answer is that they were both hopeless at man management. Yet even that was balanced by the fact that each had excellent deputies in Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop to keep the troops in good order. Certainly it’s a factor, but by no means the major one. 

No, the essential problem is the party structure that in each case gives the real power to a dominant faction actuated by a blind adherence to the atavistic passions of yesteryear – devotion to the Roman Catholic version of Christianity, the racism of whitefella supremacy, the nationalistic hubris of Anzac and a willingness to employ “whatever it takes” to win the day.

And lest we think that those days are over and the current leadership is now in safe hands, forget it. Among the Liberals, Peter Dutton is on the march and he’s backed by the same cast that took Turnbull down. 

On the other side, Shorten and his cronies are equally restless and if they can’t get their man up this time around, they’ll go for someone such as Tony Burke to carry the banner and they’ll own him when he reaches The Lodge.

So, how do we change the system to give the best and the brightest a fair go? Is moderation fated forever to be slain by the extremist?

I wish I knew. 

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