Television Review: The Killing Season (and some thoughts on MasterChef)

The Rudd/Gillard partnership is one of the most notorious in Australian political both because of its success and how quickly it fell apart. Less than a year after Rudd was elected leader of the Australian Labor Party by the caucus, he was elected Prime Minister of Australia over the incumbent John Howard, who had been our Prime Minister for eleven years. The Australian Labor Party had struggled (and again later struggled) due to factional decisions, and the Rudd/Gillard partnership seemed to unite the party in Opposition for the first time, with Rudd from the Right and Gillard from the left. Two and a half years after he was elected, and mere months before the next election, Julia Gillard challenged Kevin Rudd’s leadership of the party, and the Labor Party caucus elected her leader, and because of the way the Westminster System works, Australia had its first female Prime Minister. Over the next three years, the Opposition successfully created a narrative that the Labor Party was incompetent and unstable due to constant leadership challenges, and Kevin Rudd once again became Prime Minister three years and two days after Julia Gillard won the leadership off him. He was Prime Minister for less than three months before the Liberal/National Coalition won government and Tony Abbott became Prime Minister. The Killing Season explores this tumultuous, triuumphant and terrible time for the Australian Labor Party from the perspectives of ALP members and public servants who experienced the Rudd/Gillard government from within.

Written and presented by Sarah Ferguson and produced by Deborah Masters, The Killing Season is one of the best political documentaries I’ve seen. The level of research on the show is outstanding, and Ferguson and her team tracked down subjects that had relationships with Kevin Rudd from all over the world, including former United States Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as he navigated his way through the global financial crisis. I have my political biases, but I’m going to try and keep this piece as apolitical as possible. That being said, I was sixteen when Kevin Rudd became the leader of the federal Opposition and seventeen when he became Prime Minister. The first episode of this docu-series begins during the time in my life when I started to become more interested in politics because I was going to be able to vote soon. It was a strange kind of nostalgia watching this show, and I had forgotten some of the significant events that occurred during Kevin Rudd’s first Prime Ministership.

The first episode of The Killing Season is about Kevin Rudd’s election as Prime Minister and his first two years in government, and there is so much that I’d forgotten, or just didn’t associate with Kevin Rudd. Foremost of these is the Black Saturday bushfires, which roared through my home state. I think of it as less of an Australian issue than a Victorian one, but that’s beside the point. It came amidst Parliamentary debates over a second stimulus package in order to prevent Australia from entering a recession. Those stimulus packages were successful, because Kevin Rudd was really concerned what would happen to Australia’s economy as soon as the first US bank had to be bailed out. He asked the Treasury Secretary (head public servant of the Department of the Treasury) what the worst case scenario was, and Ken Henry thought Kevin was jumping the gun. A few months later, that worst case scenario came true. Ferguson and Masters went through the news archives for footage from the period of time that the episode covered, and even though there was a big interest rate cut seven years ago, the federal interest rate is even lower than that today. The economy had been on an upswing when John Howard was Prime Minister, and it didn’t matter who was Prime Minister, that financial crisis was always going to happen. The Labor government had to bear the criticism of budget deficits, even though the deficit was inevitable, because the Liberal Party and the media had been so successful at painting the ALP as terrible economic managers; Kevin Rudd describing himself as an economic conservative helped the ALP win government in 2007.

I’ll get back to the review in a minute, but I just want to say that I took a lot of notes that I’m never going to use, like “Peter Costello!” and “PENNY WONG!” “GODWIN GRECH!”, as people showed up on screen for two seconds. I wonder whether Penny Wong agreed to take part in this documentary, she’s a very private person. Aside from Rudd’s handling of the global financial crisis, which went very well, current economic circumstances notwithstanding, the Godwin Grech Ute-gate scandal was a strange period in Australian politics that’s a humourous aside to everything else that was going on. A public servant contacted the then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull to imply that Kevin Rudd and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan had been involved in shady business dealings with a car dealer during the election campaign. As the government investigated this issue, these allegations turned out to be false, and it was the beginning of the end for Malcolm Turnbull. All of the Labor voters who prefer Turnbull to Tony Abbott always seem to forget about this particular non-scandal.

The most interesting part of the documentary was hearing about Kevin Rudd’s cabinet appointments. Due to its close relationship with the unions, the ALP factions decided on the cabinet members before Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership. When he became PM, Kevin got to make his appointments, and tried to sideline Bill Shorten, former union leader, now the leader of the Australian Labor Party, who was also instrumental in Gillard’s leadership challenge. He was one of the ALP’s “faceless men”, who unlike Game of Thrones characters are unable to physically change their faces. The appointment of Mark Arbib to the cabinet was also significant, as he was another union heavyweight and formed a close working relationship with Julia Gillard. During the financial crisis, Rudd formed a “Gang of Four,” consisting of himself, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner. After the crisis was seemingly over, there was criticism from within the cabinet that Kevin was still making decisions without the relevant minister. This is where the documentary gets interesting, and sets up what’s going to be covered next week. Sarah Ferguson asked Julia Gillard if she was concerned about this centralised approach. Julia said:

Kevin preferred to do business that way.

Sarah Ferguson repeats this to Kevin Rudd, who responds

That is the most creative reconstruction of political history I’ve ever heard,

insisting that Julia was the strongest supporter of these “Gang of Four” meetings that were still going on. Julia Gillard says that she started to work more closely with Wayne Swan, discussing how to manage Kevin, not replace him. But we’ll get to that next week.

The first episode of The Killing Season is now available on ABC iview, and subsequent episodes will air on the ABC on Tuesdays at 8:30 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time.

Some choice quotations:

  • Kevin Rudd on climate change: “The great moral challenge of our generation”… “That’s how I got there” – and yet.
  • Kevin Rudd’s rationale on flying out of the country to New York all the time and leaving Julia Gillard in charge: “What I wanted to happen longer term was for Julia Gillard to replace me as Australia’s first female Prime Minister”
  • Kevin Rudd’s response to the question of whether he felt threatened that Julia was doing so well as Acting Prime Minister: “No, I was perfectly relaxed”
  • Anthony Albanese on Mark Arbib: “He certainly practiced in the Dark Arts”

MasterChef thoughts:

  • I had to start watching this late because of MasterChef, and this immunity challenge was tight. I still don’t know who won yet.
  • Immunity challenges are usually my least favourite day of MasterChef, but it was great.
  • Damnit, Jessica deserved immunity. If she had competed against any of the other professional chefs she would have won that pin. This is exactly what Matt Preston said as I was typing that sentence. Any other week she would have won, and that’s devastating.
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