An ideal man to finish the business

Opinion Article

2010 July, 3

The apology may be the false peak of Rudd's legacy in indigenous relations, writes Noel Pearson. 

Like many Australians I often turned my eyes away from the television screen when Kevin Rudd delivered his last address as prime minister. 

I know him a little from many years ago. He is as hard as nails. The crucible of national leadership is one that only a few know, and the rest of us are village geniuses who would have done things differently, and so on. 

Not many of us would have handled such an exit with greater courage than Rudd did. When someone is entrusted with the future of the nation, andthe clock runs out too soon for him to deliver on his plans, then not to be affected by emotion would be to deny the occasion and circumstances their proper due. 

Who Rudd was and what he stood for were the subjects of a spiralling national seminar in the months leading up to his departure. Even his elder brother Greg got stuck in. David Marr's angry heart thesis did not work for me. 

Rudd was as visceral as they come - the intense dudgeon in his treatment of NSW Premier Kristina Keneally was vintage Rudd - but if you take hunger or intensity out of leadership you may not be left with much. One person's rage is another person's confected anger: practitioners often forget which is which. 

I've been around enough Labor politicians to know the role that the "f . . k" patois plays, and Rudd's profanity was part of his somewhat contrived assimilation into a tribe whose native dialect is preponderantly limited to four letter words. I still shake my head in amusement at the story of one of the greatest proponents of these dark verbal arts, former NSW premier Neville Wran, stopping his fresh-faced opposite number, Nick Greiner, from entering the same lift with an uncompromising "f . . k off". 

And I know well that fervent Christianity does not preclude profanity. 

A Presbyterian missionary once told me a story about driving a bus full of matronly Aboriginal grandmothers from missions in Cape York to a bible study retreat. The abiding enmity between two faction leaders among the faithful continued with an exchange of insults in their local Aboriginal languages, culminating in a riposte delivered in an imperious tone: "At least I can speak better English than you, c . . t." 

In fact, Rudd met these ladies when he first came to Cape York as the 33-year-old head of the Queensland cabinet office to talk about premier Wayne Goss's plans to introduce land rights legislation. He would not have guessed that he shared with them an affinity with the calculated deployment of unchristian invective. 

Rudd gave me my first job in public life when, as a 24-year-old suit, I joined his staff at the cabinet office. I later fell out with him over the legislation and subsequently engaged in bitter debate about the Goss government's machinations in response to Paul Keating's Native Title Act in 1993. 

Still, like everyone who met him, not the least Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, few were unimpressed by Rudd's intelligence. I was an early acolyte.

His career-long predilection to surround himself with smart young men in suits with no experience in the real world has been discussed quite enough. 

But if I can indulge in one final piece of psychological speculation, it is that Rudd saw in them the young man who never had his own father to counsel him in his crucial years of youth. Oh, what a lonely thing it is not to have a father when you're in your teens.

I read Rudd's close relationship with his young advisers as the markings of a generous man with a tender regard for the growth of youth. He could see himself in these smart young men. I know I owe the bloke a debt of gratitude, for even after bitter conflict, he was gracious. 

He would have been better served if he had older, more experienced hands telling him what he needed to hear. The ability to manage the policy and the politics over the long haul is what makes a successful prime minister.

Like in rugby, the phases in play can run long, and someone has to have an eye to the complex picture of intertwining events and issues, both planned and unexpected. 

Rudd did not have an Arthur Sinodinos or Don Russell in his ear. The John Howard-Sinodinos and the Paul Keating-Russell combinations were peerless.

In his biography of Keating, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Don Watson tells my favourite story of Russell's role in the prime minister's retinue: "Late one night in March, encouraged by [Mark] Ryan, I rang the PM and said that if things didn't change I was leaving. I said that, along with the chaos and inefficiency, the work was unfairly distributed and too much of it was landing with me. 

"A couple of nights later he held a meeting with the four of us at the Lodge. He described each of us in Formula One terms. He himself was like Alain Prost - fast in the straight, brake into the corners. Stephen Smith, he said, kept the brakes on all the way around the track. Ryan would brake in the corners but sometimes also in the straight. He described my problem as being an inclination to never brake at all. Don Russell he said, spent his time thinking about building a new track."

Rudd has unfinished business in public life. He is in the prime of his life, and I share Greg Sheridan's view that Rudd has important contributions yet to give to his country. 

The unfinished business of the country's indigenous peoples is business that beckons. Like all of the country's prime ministers since Gough Whitlam, Rudd shares a genuine sense that it is to Australia's great detriment that the lot of the country's original peoples is so parlous. Unfortunately, the issue requires the kind of prime ministerial attention that prime ministers can never give, because of the many more compelling political demands on their time and focus. 

Regret that this business remained unfinished marked Bob Hawke's last days, as it did John Howard's. And so it was for Rudd.

Rudd engendered a great credit with the people of Australia, and indeed around the world, for his apology to the Stolen Generations. I was sceptical about the apology until the time of its delivery. However, its effect among people like those Cape York grandmothers, who had been removed from their families, convinced me of its correctness. 

It was the right starting place and Rudd understood its core meaning: "I'm most proud of the fact that about here we greeted the Stolen Generations. As Therese (Rein) reminded me, that was a big day. What I remember most about it, for those of you who weren't here, was as the Stolen Generations came in from over there, they were frightened. Our job was to make them welcome. The apology was unfinished business for our nation. It is the beginning of new business for our nation." 

The cornerstone was laid by the High Court in the Mabo case and Keating recognised this when he brought indigenous people into the halls of national power to negotiate the Native Title Act. 

Few may be better placed than Rudd to finish this unfinished business.

An ideal man to finish the business