THE FRONT DORE: Kevin Rudd’s week just got worse as Paul Myler exits & why Karen Webb is the anti-hero

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Christopher Dore
The Nightly
7 Min Read
Donald Trump’s frank assessment of Kevin Rudd was not the only rough part of the former prime minister’s week.
Donald Trump’s frank assessment of Kevin Rudd was not the only rough part of the former prime minister’s week. Credit: The Nightly

Kevin Rudd has not only lost his DC dignity, pantsed by the professor of political pantomime himself, Donald Trump, but he’s about to lose his most important diplomat in Washington.

Political circles are awash with speculation over the timing of the imminent departure from the US post of Paul Myler, the vastly experienced deputy chief of mission, the second most senior Australian envoy in DC, so soon after Rudd’s whirlwind arrival.

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The twice defeated PM hit Washington in characteristic style last year, full of enthusiasm, bridling with great expectation. Lots of things to do, loads of people to meet. Folks, I’m Kevin, and I’m here to Kevin.

It might not come as a surprise to Trump that Rudd was not a unanimous choice for the prestigious post.

Two of Anthony Albanese’s closest Cabinet confidantes were said to be dead against the idea, as were some over at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, long used to but never happy about being plagued with posthumous politicians playing plenipotentiary.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong was not keen on sending one of the most divisive, abrasive, abusive and arrogant figures in Australian political history to preside over Australia’s most important and sensitive, strategic, military and diplomatic relationship.

Employment Minister Tony Burke likewise.

Wong is the Albanese whisperer in the current regime. He adores her. But she has nothing on Rudd. She can sweet talk Albanese, but when Rudd purrs into his ear, well, the PM surrenders his senses.

A SURVIVOR OF LABOR’S CIVIL WAR

Albanese suffers from a unique affliction brought on by Rudd. He has both a soft spot and a blind spot for him. Albanese was sad when Rudd, two years into his first term as PM, was struck down by his comrades in a late-night coup. Very sad.

Burke was instrumental in orchestrating that decapitation of Rudd, romancing Julia Gillard over a bottle of red, convincing her to plunge the knife into his neck before hanging his entrails from the lectern in the prime ministerial courtyard.

Wong supported Gillard all the way, and was loyal to her friend until, well, she wasn’t loyal anymore and voted to bring back Rudd. This made her sad too.

Paul Myler was close to the flames in Parliament House during those most tumultuous, confounding days of treachery and tragic triumphalism.

Through the early stages of the Gillard reign, before the deposed PM, now Ambassador, waged his mindless campaign of torture that ended in an horrific political honour killing, Myler was the chief of staff to one of Rudd’s great loyalists, Martin Ferguson.

In fact, Myler ran the resources and energy minister’s office overseeing the creation of Gillard’s politically suicidal Great Big Carbon Tax. The policy that destroyed Labor and delivered government to Tony Abbott.

CAVIAR AND CALAMITY

Any wonder Myler moved on quickly before the fall of Gillard. He was given oversight at DFAT of all the Australian embassies in Europe for a few years before being sent to his first big foreign posting: ambassador to Russia.

Amazing job. All Stolichnaya and beluga on the Moscow and Saint Petersburg cocktail circuit until your hosts launch a missile at a passenger jet over Ukraine, killing all 298 aboard, including 27 Australians.

Shirt fronting to say the least.

Makes sense then, having kept Abbott and Vladimir Putin at bay during this dreadful human tragedy and diplomatic crisis, that Myler would be rewarded with another top job: Washington during peak Trump.

Great bloke Joe Hockey, playful and professional, is your boss. Then nice guy Arthur Sinodinos, polite and professional, takes over.

Sensational job. All martinis and wagyu sliders on the Washington and New York cocktail circuit until your bosses launch a Kevin Rudd missile at your official residence, killing your mojo and your will to live.

Dealing with Trump’s unruly mob is one thing, but trailing @AmboRudd around, holding his Nambour markets vintage leather satchel and Evian spray is quite another.

HOW DO I NEGOTIATE MY WAY OUT OF HERE

Myler is a renowned negotiator. Rudd takes some negotiating. The pair are said to share some traits, including supreme confidence and clarity of character.

Myler says he “operates with credibility at the highest levels of government, industry and civil society globally”. He is “comfortable with uncertainty and risk”. “I have a reputation as a creative thinker, proven in highly reactive environments, I am regularly deployed into challenging situations”.

Almost the precise set of interpersonal and professional skills required to be the perfect man on the ground to deputise Rudd. Myler points out he is also “tried and tested in the most combative stakeholder environments”. Could Rudd ask for a better sidekick to saddle up to the White House with in a Trump 2.0 world?

Myler also credits his “negotiating skills” with a long list of admirable achievements in government and international diplomacy.

“I’ve proven myself within the ruthless environs of the Australian Cabinet’s Expenditure Review Committee, against the sophistication of the US Trade Representative’s best.”

And Myler, doing Rudd proud no doubt, boasts of delivering AUKUS, one of the biggest diplomatic accomplishments in a generation.

“I can find collaborative pathways and build coalitions in the most difficult circumstances, including convincing a febrile US Congress to deliver generational defence industry reform to support AUKUS.”

Sad then that after almost five years in Washington, a longer than normal posting for a DFAT envoy, it’s time. The decision to leave was made without ceremony soon after Rudd arrived and as protocol would have it a replacement was selected.

According to those who know, the suggestion that Myler is heading home, with no defined new post, because he doesn’t get along with Rudd is: “Bullshit.”

A denial of concise programmatic specificity.

IT’S BLUE, THE FEELING WE’VE GOT (KAREN’S VERSION)

It’s a saga worthy of an epic 11-minute ballad. Karen’s Version.

Sydney is obsessed with the fate of the Taylor Swift-loving lady who commands Australia’s largest police force. Like the singing superstar, Commissioner Karen Webb has her critics. Some like her old stuff better than her new stuff. Some have never bought the hype. And just like Taylor, the in-crowd want to cut her down. In Taylor’s case, she had to contend with Jay Z and Kanye. Commander Karen has her own bunch of Beyonce-loving blokes in blue determined not to let her finish.

But to be fair to her critics, the debate over whoever is running her media comms is a distraction, always has been. Commander Karen might opt for Shake it Off as her Taylor-inspired mantra but the truth is she is the problem.

Yes, Karen, Hi, it’s you, you’re the problem, it’s you.

And it started at the beginning.

Karen Webb was never meant to be police commissioner.

I SNUCK IN THROUGH THE GARDEN GATE

She wasn’t even being considered by then premier Gladys Berejiklian who needed a new commander when Mickey Blue Eyes himself, Mick Fuller, decided to prematurely pull the pin on a distinguished career.

Natural successors have a way of materialising slowly in front of our eyes. They become the obvious choice, the only choice. So much so that after a while no one even remembers how the decision was made in the first place. It was just the right call.

But when the natural order of things is disrupted, ignored, or overlooked, and bad decisions are taken, wrong choices are made, well, they have a tendency to stink up the place, hang around like a ghost haunting everyone. Until someone finally wafts some burning sage around the joint. NSW Police desperately needs spiritual cleansing.

I’M FINE BUT IT ISN’T TRUE

Incredibly, to draw on another excruciatingly tortured Taylor Swift analogy, rather than chopping the head off the symbolic snake, the State Government keeps slicing off its tail.

Yasmin Catley, a professional librarian at a council by the coast, is the Police Minister. Not kidding. Now, librarians can be strict, orderly, precise, even command authority, in the right setting. But NSW police is not a reading room. Silence might be golden in the Lake Macquarie library precinct, but it’s deadly in Macquarie St.

Catley’s expertise, aside from the Dewey decimal system, is the Labor factional system. You don’t need to know how to file a book to succeed in Labor, but you sure do need to know how to count.

NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb during an interview on Sunrise Tuesday morning.
NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb was never meant to take the job of top cop. Credit: Sunrise/Sunrise

While Commander Karen was not Catley’s choice, she is her ghost, left by Berejiklian’s successor Dom Perrottet, who flummoxed literally everyone, including his own Cabinet, by selecting Karen Webb to run the coppers.

The freshly minted premier called an urgent Cabinet meeting not long after the lovable Berejiklian was forced to resign. The more angular than adorable Perrottet had some challenges with his image. As voters grappled with the shock of losing the folksy, moderate Glad, they knew little about Dom, a very conservative, traditional Catholic political professional.

Perrottet needed to make bold statements, to present as a more modern, mainstream, maybe even moderate, new leader.

Webb was one of those statements.

I DON’T WANT TO KEEP SECRETS JUST TO KEEP YOU

What better way to establish your credentials than to defy the insiders, the clubby, blokey, media-friendly, connected candidates, than to choose an outsider, a managerial type, not flashy, not one of the old school boys. Ignore the advice, and the obvious candidate materialising before you and fill the blank space with your special.

“None of us knew Webb at all,” one former Cabinet minister said of her political unveiling. Some ministers attempted to scramble a response, raising questions in that Cabinet meeting about her suitability for the role. But “the boss wanted what the boss wanted”. And he got it.

Perrottet, whose personal makeover ultimately failed at the subsequent election, might quote Taylor Swift too: “Look what you made me do.”

Everybody agrees now, Webb is the anti-hero.

American singer songwriter Taylor Swift performing during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne, Friday, February 16, 2024. Taylor Swift's Eras Tour has descended on Melbourne, with the pop megastar expected to perform in front of the biggest crowds of her career so far. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO COMMERCIAL USE, NO PUBLICATION COVERS
As Taylor Swift might say to NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb: “Hi, it’s you, you’re the problem, it’s you.” Credit: JOEL CARRETT/AAPIMAGE

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