Kevin Rudd: 'I wasn't really interested in whether we had won or lost'

I can remember very little of what happened in the last couple of days of the election campaignin 2004. The day before election day, 8 October, I went to the Channel Seven studios at Martin Place in Sydney for my regular weekly appearance on morning television with Joe Hockey. After each Friday's program, I rang my mother. She always watched, as any mother would, and invariably commented on my tie, my hair and how exhausted I looked. It had been our weekly ritual for years. But over the previous 12 months these calls had become particularly precious. In late 2003, Mum - who'd never smoked in her life - had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Cancer is cruel, whatever its form. For my mum, it was an additional cruelty; for some years, she had suffered from Parkinson's disease, its own form of hell on earth, and now this as well.

One of the benefits of being largely redundant in then Labor leader MarkLatham's world over that year was that I was able to spend time with Mum. My sister Loree, a qualified teacher and nurse, had kindly come back from Moscow, where she had been studying Russian language and literature, to nurse Mum at home. My older brother Malcolm, who after returning from Vietnam had also trained as a nurse, was now living and working in Nambour. To this day I am grateful to both of them for providing Mum with a level of care that I simply could not. I went home to see her not long after returning from Jakarta and we had had a long conversation about her life, her marriage and my father. It was painful for me, but liberating for her. We gathered again for my birthday on 21 September. The whole family was there. We dragged out the old projector and showed the family slides on the wall, as we had done over the decades, seeing once again the faces of aunts and uncles long gone. Marcus, aged ten, had brought Mum his favourite chocolate mousse, made specially for her with a dash of rum. She loved it. By that stage it was about all she could eat.

I saw her one last time, alone in her bed in the tiny living room that for years had been my home too. She was no longer fading. She was dying. Few words passed between us. I simply put my head on her chest as she stroked my hair. After a farewell kiss, I said I would see her the day after the election.

I took a strange route back to Brisbane. I drove up towards the Mapleton Range, towards the farm on which she had been born in 1921. I stopped the car at the highest point on the property, overlooking the old tank stands where the original farmhouse had stood. I saw the hill where, as a little girl, she had hurled the old rag doll in a rage. And I saw the old milking shed where she and her young siblings had worked from the crack of dawn, the Depression having stolen their childhood. For a moment, the world stood still. In my mind's eye, it was as if the generations had come together in time and space. And in it all, I was but the flashing of an instant. As for politics, it now seemed little more than "sound and fury, signifying nothing".

When I rang Mum on the morning of 8 October, my sister answered. She put Mum on. Yes, she had watched Sunrise. But for the first time, she made little sense. I rang my brother to ask if he could go over and give me his opinion. I was due to do a fundraiser in Sydney that day for my friend Robert McClelland, the member for Barton, before returning to Brisbane. Malcolm rang back and said I should come straight away. I raced to Mascot, caught the next flight, and drove like a man possessed to Nambour. My mobile had run out of battery along the way. Mum died about 20 minutes before I got home, in the arms of her two oldest children. It was Malcolm who would greet me outside, as he'd done 35 years before at the school gate with news of the death of my father, to tell me she had gone. Loree handed me Mum's wedding ring, which, despite all the trials and tribulations, she had worn faithfully since 1947. I wept. And then drove home.

I didn't go out on election day. I wasn't really interested in whether we had won or lost, or even whether I had won or lost. That night Latham was reduced to stunned silence in Blacktown as Labor lost yet again, coming in with only 60 seats after a 1.79 per cent swing against it. Once again we held Griffith, this time with a bigger margin of 58.6 per cent, after a further 2.5 per cent swing towards me. I now had the dubious honour of holding one of the safest seats in Queensland. God help us all. I only vaguely remember what I said that night as our mighty band of campaign workers gathered. I dedicated the win to Mum. She had raised me on her own. I owed everything to her. I loved her, and she me. The hole in my life was painful and deep. As Therese will often say, with all the eloquence of a long-standing student and practitioner of the psychological sciences, "Grief sucks!" Therese is right. Grief does suck. And for anyone who thinks that adult grief is somehow less acute, they are just plain wrong. The death of a parent or partner, even after a lengthy, healthy and full life, is still as sharp a pain as if they had died in their youth. We buried Mum on 14 October at St Joseph's in Nambour, the church where she had been married, where all her children had been baptised, where her parents had been buried and so too her husband Bert. I miss her still.

LATHAM CONVENED the caucus for 22 October to consider our fourth successive electoral defeat. Latham's post-election press conference on 12 October was delusional. He conceded no problems with his leadership. There were no problems with Medicare Gold. Nor were there problems with his management of the Tasmanian forests debacle, which had seen Prime Minister JohnHoward welcomed to the Launceston town hall with a standing ovation from the Tasmanian forestry unions, one of the enduring images of the 2004 campaign.

The mood of the caucus was sullen, made more so by the decision of John Faulkner to resign as Leader in the Senate. John was still a young man but he felt he at least, as a member of the national campaign team, should pay a price for the electoral loss. This was unfair, as we all knew that Latham had listened to virtually no one on the campaign. Faulkner had honour, whereas Latham had none. Faulkner's departure was offset by the only good news of the election, which was the arrival of a new senator from South Australia, Penny Wong. She had brains. She had courage. And having experienced all the racial torments of growing up in a very Anglo-Saxon South Australia, she was also as tough as nails. Latham was re-elected to the leadership unopposed. Nobody had the stomach for a challenge, least of all me.

I had been to see Latham at his request sometime before the caucus meeting. He had the decency to mention my mother. My emotions were still raw. I remained silent for a while, as the tears welled inside me. He then offered me a cup of tea. He asked what I wanted to do. I told him if Treasury was vacant, I would be interested. He said it wasn't. He said the reason it wasn't was that I had been treacherous during the campaign. I replied that I had spent most of the campaign preoccupied with my dying mother. He then said he had incontrovertible proof that I had been the source of a press leak against him during the campaign. I didn't even recognise the press story he was talking about, and I certainly was not the source for it. It was classic Latham: a febrile imagination conjuring a wild accusation, always convinced that there was a conspiracy to destroy him, never taking responsibility himself. After he left the leadership, he published his "diaries", in which he ridiculed my tears over my mother's death. This was Latham in uber-male mode, where any weakness was to be despised.

I quietly stood up and left. I would remain as foreign policy spokesman, for which I was grateful, given what I had put into the portfolio over the years. Latham would go on to appoint Wayne Swan as Treasury spokesman. Joel Fitzgibbon, still Latham's "mate" at this stage, told me years later Latham had meant this as one giant joke. "What kind of joke?" I asked Joel. "A joke on the party," Joel replied, "because by that stage Latham knew he would not last the distance." He would bequeath Swan to his successor as a permanent Achilles heel, entrenched in the position once it had been given to him, simply because Swan's factional strength would make it impossible to remove him. At the time, I thought Joel's thesis was just too Machiavellian to be believable. Years later, however, it would give me pause to wonder.

Kevin Rudd is a former Australian prime minister.

This is an edited extract from Not For the Faint-hearted: A Personal Reflection On Life, Politics and Purpose 1957-2007 by Kevin Rudd. Published Tuesday, October 24, by Pan Macmillan (RRP $44.95).

He will appear in conversation with Jennifer Hewett at The Great Hall, University of Sydney. 7pm, October 23. Tickets: swf.org.au

This story Kevin Rudd: 'I wasn't really interested in whether we had won or lost' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.