Former attorney-general Nicola Roxon has delivered a scathing character assessment of Kevin Rudd, describing him as a "bastard" and calling on him to quit Parliament.
Ms Roxon meted out a lengthy critique of Labor's six years in government as she delivered the John Button Memorial Lecture in Melbourne yesterday evening.
The retired Labor politician was heavily critical of Mr Rudd's leadership style, saying he showed reservations about letting cabinet make big strategic calls and would focus on minutiae to avoid "harder decisions".
A close ally of Julia Gillard, Ms Roxon slammed Mr Rudd's infamous temper and said the government was left weaker because he ignored the advice of his colleagues.
"Although I was frustrated beyond belief by his disorganization and lack of strategy, I was never personally a victim of his vicious tongue or temper," she said.
- Nicola Roxon served as health minister under Kevin Rudd and attorney-general under Julia Gillard.
- Delivered 10 "housekeeping tips" for future Labor governments, including "being polite" and "choosing good people".
- Said Mr Rudd was rude to staff, ignored advice, and was a "bastard" to colleagues.
- Said Labor was right to dump Mr Rudd, but said it was handled poorly.
- Described Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek as Labor's "dream team".
- The John Button Memorial Lecture is delivered annually, honouring the ALP luminary who served in the Senate from 1974 to 1993.
"I did, however, see how terribly he treated some brilliant staff and public servants.
"Good people were burnt through like wildfire - losing senior people like chiefs of staff and deputies or contemptuously ignoring their advice left the government weaker."
Labor's communication issues were a constant topic throughout the lecture as Ms Roxon lived up to her promise to use Button's "tell it as it is" style.
Ms Roxon spoke of massive communication issues in the Labor cabinet, saying in hindsight she and other ministers should have insisted on bringing important discussions to the fore.
"There were some contentious issues and policy problems that ran for months, in some cases years, without there seeming to be a way to bring contentious issues to a head," she said.
Removing Kevin was an act of political bastardry, for sure, but this act of political bastardry was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to too many people already.
"There was no avenue for ministers to bring genuinely difficult issues, where there were legitimately tricky calls to be made, to cabinet for a real discussion.
"Health and climate change were the two longest running 'non-discussions' for the first term of government, with some other contentious policies getting only cursory cabinet approval at the last minute."
Ms Roxon also recalled television cameras capturing Mr Rudd "icily ignoring" former NSW premier Kristina Keneally during COAG negotiations, something she said ultimately cost the federal government.
"It actually gave New South Wales the upper hand in negotiations for the first time," she said.
"Disparagingly calling her Bambi behind closed doors was pretty silly when in fact she was whip smart and actually went on to run rings around us at the final COAG negotiating table."
Labor "clumsy" in Rudd removal
Ms Roxon said if Mr Rudd had been a regular employee he would have won his unfair dismissal case because Labor did not properly explain why he was sacked.
She said while the Labor caucus made the right decision in removing Mr Rudd as leader, she said "we were clumsy and short-sighted in the way we did it".
Read the full text
of Nicola Roxon's John Button Memorial Lecture exclusively at The Drum.
"We didn't explain the dysfunctional decision-making and lack of strategy I've focused on a lot tonight," she said.
"We didn't talk about his rudeness, or contempt for staff and disrespect for public servants.
"Removing Kevin was an act of political bastardry, for sure, but this act of political bastardry was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to too many people already.
"Even though the reasons were there to justify our action, I don't think we handled it properly at the time, and Labor has paid a very high price for this mishandling ever since."
Call for Rudd to quit
Ms Roxon said polling agencies would always compare Mr Rudd's potential popularity to whoever held the Labor leadership, and that he needed to quit parliament for the good of the party.
"I believe we must also confront the bitter truth that as long as Kevin remains in Parliament, irrespective of how he behaves, pollsters will run comparisons with him and any other leader," she said.
Nicola Roxon's 10 tips for Labor
- Labor must always focus on the fact that good policy improves people’s lives and that is why the party exists.
- Governments as a whole, and the prime minister in particular, need to keep their focus high level - spending time and energy on the things that really matter.
- Good leaders are good delegators.
- Labor needs to welcome debate, not fear it.
- Be polite and be persuasive. Or I could call this "Keep yourself nice".
- Always ask what you can do for the party (and the nation) not what it can do for you (with apologies to JFK).
- Good governments run best with good diaries - so boring, but universally true.
- Choose good people - as leaders, as MPs and as staff.
- Accept you are not always right, and cannot always fix everything. It’s easier with this as your starting point.
- And lastly, never forget polling is only a snapshot, not a predictor.
"In my opinion - and it is only my opinion - for the good of the federal parliamentary Labor Party and the movement as a whole, Kevin Rudd should leave the Parliament. Otherwise the action of any Labor leader will always be tested through the prism of popularity compared to him.
"As well as being constantly unsettling, we should've learned this is not a recipe for success either."
Ms Roxon may have been a staunch supporter of Ms Gillard, but their friendship did not stop the former prime minister from coming under criticism.
"In 2007, Kevin was great at cut-through, then struggled at follow-through," she said.
"In contrast, Julia was brilliantly thorough at delivering, but couldn't always deliver the message."
Ms Roxon said both leaders took on too much of the workload as prime minister, and should have delegated responsibility better.
She said Mr Rudd had a "fatal attraction" to other people's problems, describing his response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Victorian bushfires as "overreach".
"This desire to fix the world's problems became crushingly exhausting for Kevin and debilitating for the government," she said.
"Julia also took on too much - as the new leader, the promised "fixes" were all attached to her, she wore every mistake and every setback."
Mr Rudd has declined to comment on Ms Roxon's remarks, with his office saying he is focused on policies for Australia's future rather than the internal politics of the Labor Party.
Shorten and Plibersek the "dream team"
It was not all doom and gloom throughout the lecture, with Ms Roxon declaring she was optimistic about the ALP's future under Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek.
Ms Roxon praised the ballot that saw Mr Shorten elected as Labor leader and hailed the ALP's incoming parliamentary talent, including the party's first Indigenous senator, Nova Peris.
She also pointed to MPs Catherine King, Shayne Neumann, and Andrew Leigh as politicians who are stepping up as Labor rebuilds after its election defeat.
"I reckon Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are as close to 'the dream team' as you can get," she said.
"This time of rebuilding is a chance for others who have not been utilised enough to date to come to the fore.
"In busy political life, time must be taken to get the right people and a good mix in your office of those with technical skills, political skills and maturity."