Friday, June 25, 2010

Ruddy Hell

Kevin Rudd yesterday, ABC News

Everyone is talking about Kevin, (thank you very much Lionel Shriver), but no one is stating what appears to me at least to be perfectly obvious. The man was having some kind of personal and/or professional, stress-related meltdown.

I once worked in an arms-length government agency where the boss flipped out. It happened quickly. By quickly, I mean over a period of months. She had been an extremely capable, highly qualified and mostly efficient boss. She appeared savvy with the media. At least she was when we were getting good press. She was a good team communicator, when she remembered to be. She could be a bit short with you if she was under stress but there were usually flowers on your desk in the morning if there had been a temper spill the night before.

And then a few really disastrous things happened in a row. Some flagship projects sank. Some of it was our fault, but mostly it was due to the turbulent political environment in which we were working. Government ministers change. New ones often want something different. That's just how it is sometimes. The local press not only turned but grossly overreacted to what they perceived as mismanagement. The board, (who were mostly lay people), imploded. There appeared to be embezzlement by a board member. We were suddenly working alongside forensic accountants.

Our boss appeared to be coping well at first but nothing she did to get us back on track was effective. She started to withdraw from the staff, appearing to trust no one. Her instructions became vaguer and vaguer and then stopped altogther. Her occasional forays outside her office would either be punctuated by gauche explosions of confected cheerfulness or suicide-inducing portends of doom that would have us adjourning to the nearest pub to swap notes on our latest personal exit strategies. Outbursts of seething rage were no longer tempered by floral apologies.

It's a horrible situation to be in because there is nothing you can do about it, except to enquire pointlessly, 'is there anything I can do to help?' You can only hope for a deus ex machina to descend and deliver you from your daily misery. In the meantime you concentrate on getting your CV around and worry that it will be forever tainted if you don't get your butt out of there before the inevitable moment when the excrement collides with the cooling device. And all the time this is happening, absolutely no one is functioning at any level of effectiveness. Not the boss, not the staff, not the board. You're working in a vacuum with one purpose only - to get through the day.

Eventually, our boss was signed off on long-term sick leave. An interim manager was horrified to find her office in chaos and her personal assistant in tears. The poor PA had not been allowed anywhere near any paperwork for weeks and had been sworn to secrecy. We had hoped against hope that our boss had been locked in her office all that time working through our difficulties, trying to get us help. But she wasn't. She was sitting in there quietly turning into a puddle. The interim manager arrived in the nick of time. Sanity returned surprisingly quickly. The mess was not nearly as bad as it seemed.

Why am I telling this story? Because I think this is what was happening to our former Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd was fine and effective in an approving political environment but not so brilliant at fire-fighting in a hostile one. A good leader needs to be both. There's been all sorts of squealing about 'political assassinations' and 'disloyalty' today but we're not living in the era of the mad King George here. A Prime Minister showing signs of paranoia cannot be propped up out of misguided politeness. It was terribly sad to see Kevin Rudd publicly humiliated but no one forced him to give that speech. It is perhaps an indication of just how precarious his mental state was.

The first duty of a government is to maintain itself. It's not likely a political party is ever going to say to the opposition, 'look, we've ballsed-up here. It's only right that we hand over to you.' The public will be the judge of who seems most fit to govern. There was a very narrow window of opportunity for Kevin Rudd to be replaced cleanly and efficiently, and it was opened and shut decisively. Frankly, I would have been much more worried if the party hadn't had the bollocks or indeed the skill to get him out once it became apparent that such action was crucial to its immediate and future prospects.

You don't have to go back very far for evidence of how bad things can be if a wobbly PM isn't successfully deposed before an election. Compare and contrast the atrocious goings-on in the UK in the year before that recent election. Everyone knew Gordon Brown had completely lost it. It's no time to lose your nerve.

Julia Gillard has had to jeopardise her own political future by taking up this challenge. If she loses the election it's unlikely she'll get another shot. She'll know that only too well. She'll be aware that such an eventuality will also set back the chances of another woman being electable for some time too. These are big odds. Not that she had much of a choice, mind. It's a brave decision and she's to be admired for setting her own long-term interests aside to take on this risk.

I've seen claims today that Kevin Rudd is the shortest-serving PM in our history. Not so. That honour belongs, I believe, to Arthur Fadden (Aug-Oct, 1941). In the unthinkable scenario that Gillard loses the election, she probably won't suffer the ignominy of that fate. Fadden's record of forty days would be hard to beat. It's also worth noting that the PM he deposed, Robert Menzies, was retained in Fadden's cabinet. He later became Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister.

There you go Kevin. Come to your senses, stop playing silly buggers and that could be you one day. In the meantime, straighten up and fly right.