Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation By Paul Kelly (Melbourne University Press, $49.99)

Paul Kelly's work as editor-at-large at The Australian is distinguished by his usually rigorous political analysis and sound historical judgments. With one of the finest journalistic minds in the country, he has talked to everyone who has counted in Canberra for more than four decades, earning the trust of key sources on both Labor and Coalition sides without compromising his mission to tell the truth.

In this fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, Kelly has produced the most authoritative and authentic account yet of one of the most astonishing periods in modern Australian history: the six years from 2007 to 2013. These include not just the knifing of a first-term prime minister (Kevin Rudd), who eventually backstabbed the assassin (Julia Gillard), but also the extraordinary rise of a conservative warrior (Tony Abbott), who had been widely written off.

Some of his passages, such as the account of the night on June 23, 2010, that fatally undermined not just one but two prime ministerships, or the confessions of many anti-Rudd forces that they made a historical blunder, are nothing short of masterpieces of modern journalism. Most cabinet ministers preferred to avoid a leadership contest, Kelly reveals, but faction chiefs essentially overruled them.

The book is a sheer delight for the political connoisseur. We learn that shortly after Abbott's elevation to the Opposition leadership, which coincided with the spectacular failure to reach a post-Kyoto climate consensus at Copenhagen, Gillard had concluded that the insular Rudd was deeply damaged in a mental sense. He was "miserable," "depressed", and "not in the right state" to fight Abbott at the 2010 election.

Kelly further supports the evidence surrounding the night of June 23 when the PM and his deputy, in the presence of the party's elder statesman, John Faulkner, had reached a deal: that Rudd could remain leader for a few more months. At that point, he would either stay or go, according to Faulkner's judgment. But the game was up in caucus anyway and Rudd was quickly dismissed.

Although Kelly is objective and well informed, there are omissions. It would have been good to see a more substantial analysis of the changing (political) climate in Canberra during the summer of 2009-10. Kelly is right to recognise Nick Minchin for his indispensable role in defeating not just Malcolm Turnbull's disastrous leadership but also the Rudd government's keynote legislation.

But Kelly cannot bring himself to accept that, like most media commentators, he was wrong about the politics of the emissions trading scheme. In late 2009, for instance, he described the emissions trading system sceptics as on a "political suicide mission" who would lead the Liberal Party down "the road to ruin".

For conservatives, however, opposition to cap and tax on the eve of the Copenhagen debacle was a political godsend. Having been in deepest valley for two years, suddenly the Coalition was on the highest mountain. Labor never really recovered.

One other weakness of Triumph and Demise is that the system Kelly uncovers is not as dire as he says. Sure, Opposition leaders such as Abbott and Bill Shorten have run negative campaigns, but no more than, say, Malcolm Fraser 40 years ago. True, bipartisan support for structural reforms to ensure our future prosperity is scant today, but perhaps the Coalition's acceptance of the Hawke–Keating pro-market agenda from 1983 to 1996 was an aberration.

Certainly issues get distorted and simplified, all the more so in the relentless 24/7 news and internet environment, but the same thing happens all over the globe. There is a national malaise, but there is no governmental crisis. In any case, our problems pale in comparison with the rest of the world. If an election were held in France today, for example, polls show the far-right-wing Marine Le Pen would defeat President Francois Hollande by 54 to 46 per cent.

In 2010-13 a lot of far-reaching legislation was passed, even though the prime minister had bled authority as if from an open wound. Remember her minority government was able to introduce the carbon tax.

By comparison, Barack Obama — who won a landslide election in 2008 with super majorities of Democrats in both houses of congress — could not even persuade the US Senate to debate, much less pass, a modest climate bill that consisted of little but loopholes to the big polluters.

Still, in the growing literature on why we increasingly hate politics, the final chapter on the Australian crisis is an engaging argument. Kelly has told a story that not only sheds new light on the failure of recent Labor governments; he also exposes, in unflinching and graphic detail, the larger problems of contemporary Australian politics.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald