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Aussies bid farewell to Rudd

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A "bastard" with the soul of Niccolo Machiavelli and the face of parish priest left the Australian political stage Wednesday night, and you could almost hear Macbeth's witches cackling around their cauldrons.

Kevin Rudd, son of a poor share farmer, Mandarin-speaking diplomat, political pop star and twice Australian prime minister, gave a tearful valedictory speech to federal Parliament Wednesday night.

"This has been the product of much soul-searching for us as a family over the last few months," he said of his beloved wife Therese and three adult children.

"But for me, my family is everything -- always has been, always will be -- which is why I will not be continuing as a member of this Parliament beyond this week."

Newly installed Prime Minister Tony Abbott took the shock announcement in his stride, graciously saluting the now backbencher who created a personal political phenomenon that held the country captive for seven years.

"It does take an extraordinary person to lead an extraordinary country," said Abbott, who was clearly employing some understatement.

The Shakespearean analogies were underway in the aftermath as commentators struggled to define the public life of a man who, perhaps more than any other figure in postwar Australian politics, could be described as a force of nature.

A rewrite of the 400-year-old play Macbeth might be a starting point for the screenplay to capture the bloodthirsty ambition, mingled with conflict and guilt, that Rudd's career visited upon the century-old Australian Labour Party.

Winning the Labour leadership in December 2006 by toppling King Duncan (the affable Kim Beazley), Rudd, with new glamour deputy Julia Gillard by his side, texted and Facebooked his way into popular culture.

Millions of ordinary Australians loved him in a manner difficult to convey to those who haven't witnessed one of his shopping-mall walks.

With the face of an incorruptible cherub framed by a flop of silver hair, the new Opposition leader looked light years removed from a Macbeth.

Far from being a central figure in a dark tragedy, to the people, he was more the kindly priest waiting in the confessional to hear the country's ills.

Establishing emotional intimacy with effortless ease, Rudd was the recipient of hundreds of family histories and personal trials and triumphs.

Entire lives could be poured out in torrents within seconds of a simple Rudd "g'day" greeting.

But that public ardour held the seeds of Rudd's own downfall, playing its role in the chain of enzymatic reactions leading to his political death.

After putting long-term prime minister John Howard to the sword in late 2007, Rudd, according to many in Rudd's own the Labour Party, became a Macbeth in the PM's office, gripped by hubris and wielding tyrannical rule over a quivering public service.

The extraordinary highs of the polls were destined to suffer massive declines, and when they did in June 2010, the party gleefully drew the dagger.

The ALP killed off one of its most successful leaders two-and-a-half years after he had won office, installing deputy Gillard in the prime minister's suite.

That Gillard is cast as a reworked Lady Macbeth is a given. But in this Down Under Shakespearean tragedy, Rudd also remains on stage as a version of Banquo's ghost -- a vengeful spectre rising up in awkward moments to unnerve the new queen.

Rudd and Gillard engaged in a death struggle which both transfixed and wearied the nation until last June when, in the most extraordinary comeback in Australian history, Rudd sunk the dagger back into Gillard and took back his throne.

Gillard went off to academic life, while Rudd, reanimated from his ghostly presence, once again charmed the nation.

Then, in September, Abbott entered stage right as Macduff and slew Rudd, putting the ruling National/Liberal Party coalition back in power after just six years in exile.

The closing scene has Labour stunned and broken on the stage, wondering where it all went so horribly wrong.

Former Labour leader Mark Latham recently played the witch, cackling around the cauldron.

Latham suggested there was no great mystery in this tragic tale, which Rudd's own self-destructive, egotistical ambition had made inevitable from the beginning.

"Quite truthfully, he was a bastard,'' Latham said.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2013 $sourceSection0

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