Meet the Rudds, where politics is a family affair

Article by Shane Green /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
June 20, 2013 /
Click here to view original /

Fans of Jessica Rudd, the writer, are eagerly awaiting the next instalment in her series on the adventures of political staffer Ruby Stanhope. The first book, Campaign Ruby, was eerily prescient in its plot line of an incumbent prime minister being overthrown by his female deputy.

This, of course, was written months before the same played out in real life. She watched in disbelief as her father was toppled by Julia Gillard. The next book, Ruby Blues, steered clear of foretelling the political future, dealing rather with the hard yards in government and turning 30.

And the next book? Comeback Ruby might seem a little too obvious, but she will certainly have a wealth of real-life experiences upon which to draw. Jessica Rudd’s novels fall into the genre of chick lit, but the books are readable by all, partly because of an engaging style, but also because of the tremendous authenticity she brings to her stories. She knows politics close-up, how it feels and smells.

Watching her role in the remarkable events that have led to her father’s political resurrection only reinforces this. Jessica Rudd is part of a heightened trend in Australian politics, where the families of our leaders have become an integral part of the electoral process.

In Rudd’s first prime ministership, there was the powerful presence of his wife, Therese Rein, but this has now expanded to his children as they have moved into adulthood. Lawyer son Nicholas Rudd, 24, has been appointed to a senior role on Labor’s election campaign team. Jessica Rudd, meanwhile, grows more prominent by the moment. Watch for youngest son Marcus. Politics has become the Rudd family business. A vote for Kevin Rudd is a vote for the whole family package.

So it is, too, for the pretender to the throne, although arguably to a lesser extent. The public appearances by Tony Abbott’s wife, Margaret, and his three daughters have been potent campaign weapons, particularly as he faced the Gillard-led attacks of misogyny and allegations of having a problem with women. Click on the ”about Tony” page on his website, and there is the Opposition Leader with the four women in his life, and a gallery of family photos.

The 2013 election is being shaped by remarkable forces, not least of which have been tumultuous events within the Labor Party. But it is also being defined by a developing phenomenon in politics in this country: a vote for Kevin or Tony is also a vote for a potential first family.

This trend is part of what political scientists have called the personalisation of politics. Long established in the presidential system of the US, Monash University’s Paul Strangio says it is an increasing trend across all democracies, fuelled not least by the ever more pervasive role of media in politics.

This is coupled with the decline of traditional political parties, with leaders becoming surrogates for them. I’m voting for Rudd, I’m voting for Abbott. But Labor or Liberal? The latter is increasingly not the language of today’s voters. ”The Rudd phenomenon seems to represent a new peak in this trend in Australian politics,” says Strangio.

Unquestionably, families can be an asset for a leader. ”They humanise a leader,” says Strangio ”They create a point of identification, of empathy for a leader.”

But he is also aware of the contrast this throws up with Australia’s only female prime minister, and the ”uncomfortable question” as to whether the lack of a conventional family was a disadvantage for Gillard. He points to the differences between the images that surrounded Rudd and Gillard when they were in turn deposed by each other.

In 2010, a self-absorbed Kevin Rudd was armoured by his family at his press conference. In 2013, the deposed Gillard was a solitary and yet defiant figure. ”There was a striking contrast in that imagery,” notes Strangio.

The ascension of Julia Gillard stirred some dark forces within Australian society, which we are still struggling to identify, let alone come to grips with. Go back to 2005, when Gillard posed in the kitchen of her Altona home for Fairfax Media. The fruit bowl was bare, there were no personal touches. Voters mentally wrote their own caption: single, career woman.

Two years later, Liberal senator Bill Heffernan embarrassed himself and his party with sledgehammer comments that Gillard was ”deliberately barren” and unqualified for leadership because she did not have children. Heffernan was slapped down by senior colleagues, led by Peter Costello who said the matter was deeply personal and Heffernan should not have made the comments. Heffernan apologised, but it remains one of the less edifying episodes in Australian political life.

Gillard’s single status and lack of family was certainly part of the mix when voters considered her. The so-called ”first bloke”, Tim Mathieson, never really found his place. This translated into a lack of respect for both Gillard and her partner, which bubbled to the surface when on Perth radio Howard Sattler question Mathieson’s sexuality.

That some people struggled with Gillard’s family status points to the basically conservative nature of Australian society, that somehow being part of a traditional nuclear family qualifies one for high office.

In Australia’s political history, the role and prominence of prime ministerial families – and particularly their partners – has waxed and waned.

In the 1930s, the huge family of Joe and Enid Lyons, with 11 children, was celebrated, and was part of the popularity among voters of ”Honest Joe”. Enid was also an early example of a prime minister’s wife making her own, distinguished mark. In her excellent book Prime Ministers’ Wives, Diane Langmore describes how Joe and Enid operated as a political double act. ”Together on a platform, Joe and I worked like partners in a game of bridge,” she quotes Enid.

After her husband’s death in 1939, Enid Lyons went on to an impressive career in Federal Parliament. In 1943, she was elected as the member for Darwin, becoming the first female member in the House of Representatives, and would go on to be the first female in federal cabinet.

Over the decades, Australians have known prime ministers’ partners and their families to varying extents. Like families themselves, there is a good and the bad when partners of politicians and their children become part of the story.

In some cases, that has involved personal heartbreak, such as Bob Hawke’s tearful defence of family after a National Times report that a drug charge against one of his daughters had been overturned on appeal.

Asked if he was upset by the report, a tearful Hawke said: ”Of course I was, because like any father I love my daughter. I trust her and she was completely exonerated by the processes of the law. I had no contact with the judge or anyone involved in it and yet you have this insinuation that affects her. Of course, I’m upset.”

Paul Keating was known for being particularly protective of his children, while the Howard family was usually only seen publicly on platforms during key moments, such as election night.

In 2013, the rules of engagement have changed. The politics of the nation have become a family affair. The ascension of Rudd and his new style of politicking is also defining this shift. The impact of Jessica Rudd is one of the most interesting forces at work. Therese Rein remains a tremendous asset for Rudd. She is supportive, pictured beaming at his side, but she is also a self-made businesswoman, independent of her husband. Take the story of how she heard of the latest challenge. She was in the air between London and Sydney when she learnt that Gillard had called a leadership ballot.

The rise of Nicholas in the Rudd family political business is also a fascinating development. After working as a lawyer with Clayton Utz in commercial arbitration, he was recently appointed as an adviser to the Prime Minister, part of the Rudd campaign team. His impact appears to have been immediate, with reports that he had a hand in drafting his father’s ALP reform package. Said the father of the son: ”He is smart. And was employed on his merits.”

Yet the growing impact of their daughter, 29, is particularly intriguing. She is married to Albert Tse, a banker, and they have a daughter born last year, Josephine.

Melbourne University political scientist Lauren Rosewarne sees a strategy behind the prominence of Jessica. ”There’s a lot of subtle messages that are conveyed by the appearance of just one woman by his side,” she says.

First, it helps deal with the bringing down of Australia’s first female prime minister. ”He’s got a lot of ground to make up in terms of being seen to have done a sexist thing to Julia Gillard,” she says.

And the fact that Jessica’s husband is ethnically Chinese is the embodiment of a modern lifestyle. ”It says contemporary and modern, which is everything that Tony Abbott isn’t,” says Rosewarne. ”And he can’t do anything about that.”

She also appeals to a younger audience. In Rudd’s first speech as Prime Minister last month, he told young people he understood politics had become a ”huge national turnoff”.

It was interesting, then, to read Jessica Rudd’s recent column in Cleo magazine, in which she likened Parliament House to the Lindsay Lohan film Mean Girls, about bitchy high school girls, and the stir it caused.

”The corridors are a cacophony of scoffs, burns … eye rolls are more common than smiles,” she wrote. ”Wednesday nights are party nights, Thursdays are for gossip – who hooked up with who, who got so blotto they were barely awake for question time.” She called for an end to cynicism and squabbling.

”We’ve had it up to here. For crying out loud, stop talking to each other and start talking to us. On behalf of young people everywhere, I make this plea to all our representatives, their staff and the press gallery: stop squabbling and grow up.”

It provoked a defence of politicians and staffers by former Labor staffer Jamila Rizvi, writing on the Mamamia website. Rudd called her and apologised and, in a response published online by the magazine, talked about a ”grand-scale miscommunication”. Her real message, she explained, had been about cynicism versus hope.

It’s important to stress that while there is political strategy in the presentation of the Rudd family, Jessica Rudd is no bit player, but a serious political thinker.

I met Jessica Rudd in late 2011, when she was on a promotional tour for Campaign Ruby, at a chic Italian restaurant in Little Collins Street for a ”lunch with …” interview. She was engaging and smart. She gave some insights into her deeply political nature – and also the unvarnished loyalty she has for her father.

She talked about growing up in the Rudd household. Like some families talk about football, the Rudd family talked about politics. ”So I just absorbed all of that from a very young age and I kind of fell in love with it, and I find it really fun to watch,” she says. ”I like being in a position where I know what’s going on in the world, and I understand all the jargon.”

It was just months before his failed February 2012 challenge, and she was understandably careful in responding to questions about her father’s return to the top job. What struck me was her complete loyalty.

”Whatever happens, whether there are changes at some point in the future, who knows,” she said then. ”My dad has my support, because he has such a great sense of vocation in his work.” (In the days before the 2012 challenge, she was active in drumming up ”people power” – ”Let’s own this spill, people. Let’s make it ours.”)

Over that lunch, she relived the day her father was deposed by Gillard, and insisted going back into question time after his press conference. ”I was like, ‘Dad, seriously, come home, let’s get absolutely shit-faced and eat some toasted sandwiches’.”

Based in Beijing, and with a young child, it’s hard to know how much on-the-ground campaigning she will be able to involved in. Yet even on the other side of the world she is part of the action, using Twitter to support her father.

When Rudd announced plans for ALP reform, she tweeted: ”I close my laptop for a day and Dad sets out a plan for party reform. *closes laptop again in case something else magnificent happens.*”

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