ABC’s The Killing Season last night continued reporter Sarah Ferguson’s forensic autopsy of the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard governments in its second episode, in which social media favourite Ken Henry returned to defend Rudd from more accusations of bad behaviour.
There were frequent rumblings of staff dissatisfaction and turnover in the Prime Minister’s Office under Rudd, and early on included rumours of poor treatment of top officials.
Military chiefs and departmental secretaries were left waiting outside his office for hours after being summoned. As the prime minister’s diary spun out of control, nobody thought to send them back to their own offices to be called on later, the press gallery reported.
Officials worked to keep complaint reports out of the public eye, but despite their efforts, hostile outbursts also made frequent appearances in media coverage of his administration.
These streams of abuse were not just towards his party colleagues and political staffers, but attendants and other officials that crossed his path. A RAAF cabin attendant was left in tears after a tirade about meal options — later it was revealed in a report by the VIP fleet commander that PMO had not passed on Rudd’s requests to the crew.
Nicola Roxon expressed her concerns about his behaviour during her interview for the ABC program. He was demanding but courteous and even “charming” to her, she said, however she confirmed reports about his harsh treatment of junior staffers and officials:
“He was rude to people, he was dismissive of their work, he’d tear things up in front of people.”
But two of Rudd’s then top bureaucrats had a different point of view. Head of the public service and secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, thought there was worse behaviour going on:
“There were ministers in his cabinet who were far more ill-mannered and rude in their handling of public servants than Kevin. Kevin Rudd was not the rudest person in his cabinet by a long-shot.”
Then Treasury secretary Ken Henry noted Rudd was prosecuting an “extraordinary number of very big issues — more than previous governments would have prosecuted in a similar period of time”. That included finding a way to implement the recommendations of his own tax review.
He put his public servants “under a lot of pressure,” Henry said. But was there a particular moment it went too far? “No, not really. This was something that developed quite slowly really. I’m going to avoid using a particular phrase that comes to mind, but, one of those slow moving catastrophes.”
Ferguson offered the description: “Train wreck?”
Henry agreed: “Didn’t look like it at the time. In retrospect that’s what we were witnessing.”
Henry said it hadn’t considered if these scenes were preventing the government from functioning properly, as they were attending to the things that absolutely had to be attended to. “No this concern had more to do with the ways the big issues of the government had identified to itself prosecute, those issues were not being dealt with as well as they might.”
He demurred when asked if this was a valid justification for removing a prime minister: “That’s not the question I’ve asked myself. The question I’ve asked myself is whether there should have been a deeper quality conversation with the man about what needed to change.”
Rudd has stuck with almost the same line since accusations of bullying were first raised against him during his prime ministers. Back then he said he made no apologies “for either the content of my conversation or the robustness with which I expressed my views” following one altercation with a colleague.
Should top public servants like Ken Henry have given him frank advice that he was trying to do too much at once? Rudd thinks they should have:
“It’s a question for public servants, who are not shrinking violets, who are senior, experienced women and men to tell you: ‘Hey, got a little too much on, prime minister’. That’s the way it works. The normal way that it works.”