How A Rumour About Rudd Almost Killed Off The Killing Season

06/05/2016 6:10 AM AEST | Updated 06/05/2016 6:15 AM AEST
ABC Television

The making of 'The Killing Season', the ABC documentary series on the Rudd/Gillard governments, matched the intensity of the story we were telling. There was a contest between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to assert their own narrative as the true version of history. We had to find a path through the no-man's land between each side, the former leaders and their supporters. Finding the truth in such disputed circumstances was bound to be difficult, as former finance minister Lindsay Tanner observed:

"The truth is always conditional in politics. There are certain things that are on the public record that are not disputed. Then there are other things that there are differing interpretations of, where it's probably not possible to get a conclusive position. And there are other things that we'll probably never know."

My partner was series producer Deb Masters. As well as hours spent poring over material -- we did 53 on-camera interviews for the series and logged more than 1000 hours of archive -- we rang and texted each other many times a day for months, often late at night or early in the morning.

Filming didn't get off to a good start. Arriving in Adelaide for our first interview with South Australian Senator Don Farrell in August 2014, I was exhausted from another project and overslept.

Ferguson to Masters, 07:22:08:

Slept through alarm. just woke up. oh dear


only 10mins or so from hotel.


...waiting for cab. oh dear.

Farrell was one of the instigators of the dramatic 2010 leadership challenge that removed Kevin Rudd from office. Farrell's account was our first experience of the deep bitterness that remained among the players in those events. When he left Parliament in 2013, Farrell said in his valedictory speech that 'the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of crisis'.

I asked him if he meant the Labor Party under Kevin Rudd.

"I did. His managerial style was completely unacceptable, the way he treated his colleagues was completely unacceptable, and the way he managed his office was completely unacceptable."

I asked Don Farrell why they didn't take their concerns to the Prime Minister.

"All of us had formed a view about Kevin's ability to receive bad news and to be given advice. So in a sense you had to work around him."

SF: Is that fair though, just to make that assumption and not test it?

DF: Yeah, look, I think it is fair.

We were concerned throughout the making of the series that any stray remark could be in interpreted as us leaning one way or another, favoring one version over another. Looking back I realise I was paranoid.

Before the interviews with Gillard and Rudd began, Masters and I attended the launch of Julia Gillard's book My Story.

Ferguson to Masters, 16:19:40:

Australian wrote a piece saying Ray (Martin) and I were the only journos at the Gillard party -- I hope KR doesn't see it

Masters, 16:29:36:

Feared that

There were reasons for our paranoia. Neither Rudd nor Gillard was an enthusiastic participant in the series. Both held a deep mistrust of the media whom they believed had become partisan, especially during the divided years of the Gillard government. Kevin Rudd reacted when gossip columnists wrote that he was making unreasonable demands for his involvement in the series, including that he had insisted we travel to the USA for a pre-interview chat and the interview. It wasn't true but the stories nearly caused Rudd to pull out. One article in The Financial Review described the former Prime Minister as 'an unmitigated tosser'.

Kevin Rudd to Sarah Ferguson, 11:27:37:

Why on earth should I bother continuing this abc project after the appalling piece in AFR this morning leaked by abc. This is the second time this has appeared.

Ferguson to Rudd:

I have just heard about it. It's a nasty piece of gossip. It had nothing to do with us and is an obvious negative for us. We have been discreet and scrupulous with our discussions. I am not influenced by the views of anyone who wishes you or me or the project ill.

Rudd to Ferguson:

Then can you ask ABC to put out a correction that it was Abc initiative not my demand. K

After a tense few weeks the interview was on again. Masters and I flew to Boston for a three-day interview session with Kevin Rudd. We didn't sleep much before the first day of interviews, partly out of concern that the interview would fall over at the last minute.

Ferguson to Masters, 6 am:

I'm doing questions. sleep ok?


No. Have you eaten?


I have room service Bob Carr steel cut oats and filthy coffee.


Yuk. Meet in lobby?

We made a slow start on the first morning as I tried to work out Rudd's approach. He was trying to get the better of me, to master the interview. Rudd is a hard interview. Sometimes brilliant with perfect timing, part pastor, part PT Barnum, at other times his language becomes overblown, obscuring sense, trying to demonstrate knowledge rather than share it.

I asked Rudd if he thought Gillard was truthful.

"I think Julia has always had a bit of a problem with the truth. I think she has a problem with sincerity. Julia is such a disciplined political player that she has almost in her mind a scripted answer to any question which you ever put to her."

I put Rudd's quote to Gillard.

"Kevin's entitled to his views, and obviously his views about me have been shaped by a very hot political cauldron. I understand that."

the killing season

After three tense sessions, Rudd cut short our last interview promising more time later in Australia. I decided to clear my head on a boat on Boston Harbour.

Ferguson to Masters, 02:53:36:

i'm going to check out the ships of the

revolutionary war in Boston Harbour and

figure out once and for all what the Brits

didn't understand about double hulled

boats. beautiful day.

Masters to Ferguson:

You'll nail it.

There were many frustrations in the interviews with Rudd, not least his rigid narrative that Gillard, not he, was responsible for her demise, but his engagement with the series was richer. Gillard was formal and reserved from our first meeting in the Hilton hotel in Sydney until the last goodbye at the back of the ABC loading bay where her commonwealth car waited, engine on, ready to depart.

While her colleagues and friends attested to her great personal warmth, in our research we read that other journalists had met the same reserve.

Ferguson to Masters, 11:07:49:

Jacquelin Kent on meeting gillard for her

book "though she was friendly she never

invited connection

Masters, 11:42:06:

Sounds familiar - wish there was an

opportunity for you to spend time with

her - have to think on it

One of the final editorial decisions we made was to include in the series the beautiful photograph of Julia Gillard taken by Sophie Deane, a young girl with Down syndrome who Gillard had met campaigning for the NDIS. The photo captured the warmth not always seen by the voters.

Wayne Swan explained why Gillard's warmth couldn't cut through.

"It was a combination of a difficult political environment, part of it self-inflicted through disunity, from Kevin in particular, but not exclusively so. Part of it I think may have been her own reaction or protective mechanism towards the volume of abuse that was being poured upon her."

Gillard's narrative about Rudd was as fixed as his about her. The challenge to Rudd's leadership was caused by his inability to "cope" in the job. It's an explanation that ignores the contribution of her ambition. Former Labor minister and union leader Greg Combet put it like this:

"She would have had a group of people, the urgers, 'Yeah yeah yeah, you know, you're the one, you're the one, he's finished, he's finished, it's you, it's you'. And that's how they talk, some of them. She's ambitious, and probably got a sizeable ego too, like the rest of us. An opportunity's presenting itself. Plus all the frustrations that are there. And you know maybe she might have handled it differently if she'd been a bit more experienced."

Only once in the hours of exchange did Gillard allow the possibility that there was an alternative course of action to the challenge. She spoke haltingly:

"I think about it a lot and I, well, just thinking about it is not quite right. I don't think about it a lot now. I've thought about this but, you know, the reality would've been a 2010 election [when] either I couldn't have continued as Deputy Prime Minister or throughout the whole of the campaign Kevin would've looked at me with suspicion. Would we have won? Open question. There would still have been Kevin in the prime ministership not coping, the suspicions and the stresses and strains that came from that. That was not going to be an easy set of propositions or days either."

While we wrestled with the truth that lay somewhere in between the two versions, some of our concerns were more prosaic. When we needed Victorian MP Alan Griffin to return for extra filming, he told us his appearance had changed since our first interview months earlier.

Sarah Ferguson, 20:16:32:

Alan griffin says he has lost a lot of weight! I said we wld bring padding.

Masters, 20:30:52

Hope he laughed - is he sick?

Ferguson, 21:22:31:

No lite and easy. Just had a chat with KR

Masters, 21:44:43:

Wow lite and easy. How was KR??

Sarah Ferguson, 21:45:47:

"I didn't want it back. I'm not like that. They wanted me to come back. I didn't."

The last remark was the repetition of Kevin Rudd's narrative that he didn't actively seek to return to the leadership but waited for his colleagues to draft him.

In the end, as Anthony Albanese put it, the caucus wasn't big enough for Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. I had known for some time writing the script that we couldn't give the final world to either of the two chief protagonists, instead it went to British MP Alan Milburn who had come to Australia to advise the Australian Labor Party during the 2007 and 2010 election campaigns.

"How is it possible that you win an election in November 2007 on the scale that you do, with the permission that you're gifted by the public, and you manage to lose all that goodwill, to trash the permission and to find yourself out of office, within just six years? I've never seen anything quite like it in any country, anywhere, anytime, in any part of the world. And that is something that no-one can escape blame for."

After 10 months we reached the end of the story, the first episode went to air on June 9th. I moved on two days later to a new series on domestic violence. This was our final exchange on the Killing Season.

Sunday, 7 June 2015


Feel like I swam the English Channel.


Sleep sleep, worried that you're getting no down time

Sarah Ferguson:





Sarah Ferguson's The Killing Season Uncut, written with Patricia Drum (MUP) is available now.

the killing season uncut

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