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When politics becomes blood sport – welcome to The Killing Season, power Aussie Rules style

Posted on 23 June 2015 | 8:06am

One of my favourite foreign politicians when starting out with Tony Blair was then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. Clever, funny, tough, with a desire to batter the Tories that was closer to my own approach to politics than that of my more big-tented boss.

With Keating, though he was cute enough at internal politics and became PM after ousting Bob Hawke at the second time of trying, once in the job, you always had the sense that his real enemies were on the benches opposite, not sitting all around him on his own side. He was never happier than when punching his Liberal opponents when they were down, and he saw off a few of them before finally being seen off himself, by general election defeat to John Howard in 1996.

Would that the same could be said of two of his successors as Labor leader and PM, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. No doubt there have been times in their careers when the closeness between them was genuine. But one of the worst things about the brilliant ABC TV series which has been running in Australia about their rises and falls is the contrast between what they said in public about each other when working together, and what they say now. Shots of mwah mwah air kissing, and warm words about their respective talents, are woven in with their own retrospective accounts of tensions that develop into what is clearly now a mutual loathing which led to mutual destruction and the election of Liberal – aka Tory – Tony Abbott as PM.

The series is called The Killing Season. You get the idea. It is great TV, and terrible for politics.

In terms of where blame or sympathy lie, it is a bit like watching a tennis match where the momentum swings first one way and then the other. At times Rudd comes over as something of a narcissist, but then a section on climate change or the global financial crisis will give a sense of the political qualities and the acute intelligence that got him to the top. Gillard will in one episode appear as the epitome of the get-things-done, get-on-with anyone loyal deputy, the next as a political killer to match the hardest and the toughest.

This is not just the Rudd-Gillard show. Most of the players around them have given long interviews and one ministerial colleague, asked to make sense of the fact that she could one day see Rudd as rude and difficult with colleagues and staff, the next brilliant in comforting kids driven from their homes by fire, observes: ‘we’re all complicated.’

One of the most interesting sub-plots – and sorry if I use the language of soap opera but at times that is what it feels like – is Rudd’s relationship with long-time friend, colleague and godfather to his son, Wayne Swan. The conversation when Swan told him he was joining the Gillard camp, to force Rudd out, was, says his former best mate in politics, the last time they spoke.

By a total coincidence I was in Canberra seeing Gillard on the very day Rudd finally made his move after months of intrigue and undermining, and paved the way for her departure, and his resumption of Prime Ministerial office. It did feel like being in the middle of some kind of psychodrama that had ceased to be about real political differences and was all about the personalities of the main characters. At the time, getting everything through the Gillard lens, I was seeing and hearing all that was ‘wrong with Kevin.’ The series takes a broader view of course but, on the question ‘who comes out best?’, I would say pretty much none of them, thought with Gillard perhaps ahead on points.

Gordon Brown is interviewed, speaks glowingly of Rudd, especially his role in the GFC. GB and Rudd did play significant roles in the shaping of a G20 response and the warmth between them seems genuine enough. And of course watching the series did bring back memories – which frankly are never far away – of the TBGBs, as the often troubled relationship between Tony and Gordon became known.

That in turn brought front of mind once more the question I have asked in WINNERS AND HOW THEY SUCCEED, about why politics seems to be so bad at teamship compared with sport.

I have a chapter in the book titled ‘The Winning Spirit of Australia,’ which salutes the very special winning mindset that has made Australia one of the disproportionately most successful sporting nations in the world. It draws on interviews with the likes of cricketer Shane Warne, Aussie rules player of the century Leigh Matthews, athlete turned politician Nova Peris, seven times worlld champion surfer Layne Beachley, rugby league star Johnathan Thurston. They all have very different stories to tell, but they all draw in different ways on the importance of mateship.

There are said to be examples of Australians forgetting their closest friend’s names, due to knowing them for decades simply as ‘mate’. It is an Australian cultural idiom, a remnant from an age of convict culture and class rejection, strengthened on the fields of Gallipoli, and continuing to this day.

The word ‘mate’ comes up often enough in the Killing Season interviews as friends recall how they fell out. ‘The thing that is most painful through it all is the active sense of betrayal,’ Rudd says in the opening titles of episode two. ‘Betrayal by people close to you, betrayal by the people you thought you could trust.’ Asked what he would say if he did have a conversation with Wayne Swan, Rudd says simply ‘betrayal hurts, mate.’

Character assassinations, assaults on reputations, betrayal of the deepest form, set amidst national and global crises: it’s Machiavellian, Shakespearean, and feels completely un-Australian, but maybe my love for the Aussie sporting mindset has made me naive and romantic about the country as a whole.

But what is it about politics, to quote the Bard, ‘that it should come to this’? How can politics be exempt from such a strong national identity? How can politics ignore a fundamental element of success in business and in sport – that of being able to work as a team?

When in pursuit of an objective as clear as winning an election, particularly if that election is winnable, then there is likely to be solidarity. ‘It adds something by being together’, says Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. ‘Suddenly it is about “us” and not “me”‘. As early as the 1890s people were agreeing with the importance of this: one of the forefathers of modern sports psychology was an American, Norman Triplett, who calculated that people rode their bikes faster if they were with other people.

It was possibly of little surprise then that on the night of their election win in the year ‘Kevin 2007’, Rudd was open in his admiration for Gillard, declaring she was a ‘fantastic’ deputy leader of the Labor Party and will be a ‘fantastic’ Deputy PM. Gillard reciprocated: ‘He has done a remarkable job in the less than 12 months he has been leader, and a remarkable job during the campaign: he is just amazing… You couldn’t possibly ask for better.’

Yet as Henry T Ford put it: ‘Coming together is the beginning, staying together is progress, working together is success.’ Watching The Killing Season, you are left reflecting that though both Rudd and Gillard have the highest job in the land on their CVs, because they only really managed the first of those three, ultimately they are closer to Enoch Powell’s ‘all political lives … end in failure’ than Ford’s vision of how people can come together to do great things that endure.

And here we come to the only conclusion I reach on this subject in WINNERS – that sportsmen and women find their talent young enough to be shaped by others, and in any event the concept of the team is drummed into us the moment we kick a ball in anger. In business, the hierarchy is clearer and more fixed than in the ever fluid world of politics where the ambition of the individual is always mixing in with the goals of the team. In politics, even if a politician is joining a team – the party or the campaign – actually going into politics is an acutely individual decision, and perhaps that never leaves them, which is why ultimately the real team players are outnumbered.

The Killing Season is extraordinary TV but sad to watch. Because ultimately it is a story of bad politics that failed because people simply could not work together in a way that made the team greater than the sum of the egos of the individuals.

The final word of the final episode goes to former UK Labour minister Alan Milburn, who has advised the ALP, and who reflects as follows: ‘The hard question that the Australian Labor party has to ask itself is this: how is it possible that you win an election in November 2007, on the scale that you do, with the goodwill that you have, with the permission that you are gifted by the public, and you manage to lose all that goodwill, to trash the permission and to find yourself out of office within just six years. I have never seen anything quite like it in any country, anywhere, anytime in any part of the world. No one can escape blame for that in my view.’ He is right.

And the quote about not seeing anything like it in any other country in the world is instructive, given that he was a key figure in the UK Labour election campaign of 2005, when the TBGBs were kind of rampant. The Killing Season makes our problems then look tame by comparison. And we did, for all the problems at the top, win three successive full terms.

— Enough for now … off in the early hours to talk about WINNERS, and no doubt about THE KILLING SEASON, on Australian media.