Kevin Rudd: The former Australian prime minister with a global vision

Shafi Musaddique
Voyage of discovery

Queensland, Australia is home to some of the world’s most recognizable natural wonders. Sporting a coastline stretching some 7,000 kilometers and the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system, the northeastern Australian state boasts incredible biodiversity.

Its rural heartland was also the childhood home to Kevin Rudd, the twice-serving former Australian prime minister who played a key role in founding the G-20.

Growing up on a farm, Rudd was surrounded by cattle, crops and what he describes as “endemic poverty.” Both his parents were children of the Great Depression, a period of severe economic hardship that started with the 1929 Wall Street Crash and led to the collapse of the Australian economy and unemployment for 30 percent of Australians by 1932. Neither of Rudd’s parents went to high school and they became farmers in Queensland after their marriage.

The former prime minister recalls his early years in a “wonderful environment to grow up in” – until tragedy struck. When Rudd was 11, his father died from an infection acquired during a hospital stay following a car crash.

“That changed our lives and it was the end of farm life. But he did have an influence on me in this sense,” Rudd told CNBC’s Tania Bryer.

“I remember sitting on a horse with him one day. He was big, and his horse was big, and I was small, and my horse was tiny. He leant over and said, ‘Have you made up your mind about your future? The fork in the road?’ You're 11 years old, you have no idea what your father's talking about. And he said, ‘You know, the big choice you've got to make in your future: Is it going to be beef cattle or dairy cattle?’ That's when I decided to become a diplomat,” he recalled.

Rudd’s mother Margaret retrained as a nurse in the 1970s to earn enough income to raise her four children as a single parent.

“She taught me resilience and she taught me hard work, and I think, because of our circumstances she instilled in me a sense of justice,” Rudd said.

A total of 191 countries and one regional economic integration organization have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but the U.S. dropped out in 2001.
(Source: United Nations)
“Don't just assume that a change for its own sake is good.”
Kevin Rudd

Margaret Rudd influenced the budding diplomat’s political views. She pushed him to read newspaper articles about the world, and he eventually became the first in his family to attend university. Rudd studied Chinese language and history at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“By the time I went to university, I'd never met anyone from China because where I grew up it was classic white Australia. There was nobody around,” he said. “And so, for me, this was a big voyage of discovery.”

While his mother’s legacy is the expansion of Rudd’s vision beyond rural Australia, it was his wife who instilled in him a deep sense of family and justice. He met Thérèse Rein, now a successful entrepreneur, while studying at university.

“We also had a deep interest in justice in those days. I'd already affiliated myself with the Australian Labor Party and she had a sense of justice and equality. Her father was in a wheelchair (after) he'd been shot down in the war. Neither of us had any financial background, so we also shared a view that, if we were going to get anywhere in life, it depended on these two things (holds up his hands).”

Rudd joined his country’s foreign office in 1981 as a diplomat fluent in Mandarin. His first port of call, however, would not test that language ability.

“Well, if you're a young career diplomat and you join with reasonable Chinese language skills, then, of course, the natural place the Foreign Service will send you is Sweden!” he said.

“New country, new wife, or new husband depending on your perspective, new language and a new job. It's a recipe for divorce. Thirty-seven years later, we're still married!” he added.

The life of a young diplomat taught Rudd a “hands-on approach,” using leadership skills and adapting to new situations rapidly. By the time he returned to his home country and entered politics with Australia’s Labor Party, he said, nothing surprised him anymore.

Ground-breaking politics

Rudd’s journey to become Australia’s 26th prime minister wasn’t smooth. Many considered him a novice compared to the political veteran he was up against. John Howard, then prime minister, saw his grip on opinion polls slipping. Howard refused to bow out of politics and a series of gaffs by members of his own party damaged Australia’s ruling Liberal Party. With just nine years behind him as a Member of Parliament and only one year as leader of the opposition, Rudd had managed to oust his predecessor Howard — the country’s second longest serving leader — to win his first term in office in 2007.

“The first feeling I had was one of just deep responsibility. The elation lasted about 35 seconds,” Rudd said.

He couldn’t celebrate for long. A global financial crisis would within month’s swamp Rudd’s early days in office. Challenging times lay ahead for what he calls a “sobering” and “frightening experience.”

“If you approach it soberly, the exercise of political power, in whichever country you're from, is a very sobering thing. It's not a game, it's not a theory, and it’s not a plaything. You change people's opportunities in a big way through what you decide.”

After two months in office, Rudd did what no sitting prime minister had done before. He delivered a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for crimes committed against them, particularly the state’s forced removal of indigenous children from their families.

‘The stolen generation’ refers to the forced separation of indigenous Australian children from the late 1800s until its official end in 1969. As many as 100,000 were separated from their families.
(Source: Australian Museum)

Since his exit from politics, Rudd started the National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians to help close the poverty gap afflicting that group.

Rudd firmly believes that “it was the right thing to do” after what he says was white Australians’ “appalling” treatment of the indigenous population for over 200 years.

“For me, that was a basic and elemental exercise in social justice. It's a product of a reflection on who we are as human beings,” he said.

Concern about the four drivers of inequalities for women — lack of universal healthcare, lack of education, inadequate access to finance and gender-based violence — led him to appoint the country’s first ambassador for women and girls to help reduce gender inequalities.

Beyond the domestic realm, Rudd’s early passion for Chinese studies foreshadowed his international policies. Key foreign policy initiatives included inviting the U.S. and Russia to the East Asia Summit in 2010 and transforming Australia’s climate change response. Rudd helped to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2007 and set a mandatory renewable energy target of 20 percent by 2020.

“If you don't have a sense of humor in political life, you die.”
Kevin Rudd

The most acute challenge of Rudd’s time in office, however, was the global financial crisis. He attributed his response to the situation to his studies of history.

“I knew enough about the history of the ‘20s and the ‘30s, and of the history of recent recessions in the global economy in the early ‘80s and the early ‘90s to know not just what to look for, but what measures not to adopt in response to it.”

In response to the crisis, Rudd’s government introduced a large stimulus. The then-prime minister went on to breathe a sigh of a relief as Australia avoided a recession during the crisis.

A global vision

Rudd weathered the economic storms, but suffered blows to his political career. After just three years at the helm, Rudd resigned amid mounting pressure and a leadership challenge from his deputy, Julia Gillard. Under Australia’s first female prime minister in a minority government, Rudd became foreign minister between 2010 and 2012. But high office came calling again, and Rudd became prime minister for a second time in 2013 — only to lose an election in September that year and thereafter confirm his retirement from national politics.

Life after politics has been more of a “vocation” for Rudd, he said. He is currently president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, the international group’s in-house think tank. He was also appointed to the board of a United Nations-supported program for improving sanitation in areas of extreme poverty.

The term ‘indigenous Australians’ refers to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
(Source: The National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians)

Rudd’s global outlook from his youth remains to this day. As the threat of a global trade war escalates and tensions mount between nations, Rudd said he fears that China and the U.S. are being “ripped apart rather than being brought closer together.”

Rudd said that he feels his political career gave his life direction.

“I'd always had a sense of mission and a sense of purpose. Part of that purpose, which was on the home front because I am a social democrat, was to try and maximize equality of opportunity (for) poorer people, like the person I was when I grew up.”

Writer: Shafi Musaddique
Design and code: Tim Shepherd and Bryn Bache
Editor: Everett Rosenfeld
Presenter and Executive Producer, CNBC Meets: Tania Bryer
Executive Producer, CNBC Meets: Martin Conroy
Series Producer, CNBC Meets: Jen Northam
Associate Producer, CNBC Meets: Michelle Blackwell
Images: CNBC and Getty Images
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