It was the visit of the man who used to be the prime minister and isn’t officially campaigning to be prime minister again.
Labor backbencher Kevin Rudd visited Faulconbridge on Monday to plant his official tree at the Corridor of Oaks and to meet with the people of Macquarie.
And Mr Rudd clearly still has the charm factor. On a walk through Springwood, he was at ease with screaming teens photographing him for their Facebook updates and business owners calling him over to shake their hands.
“That was so random. Oh my goodness did that just happen?” Wentworth Falls TAFE student Brittany Barnes, 17, shrieked as Rudd’s staffer was on hand to take photos with the girls’ iPhones.
“Kevin O7, Kevin 07,” her friend screamed as Mr Rudd walked by.
Springwood-based Labor Senator Doug Cameron — who was a prominent Rudd supporter in the leadership contest with Julia Gillard and who, with Macquarie ALP candidate Susan Templeman and Blue Mountains City Council engineered the historic visit — admitted it was hard to keep the former PM on schedule.
“It’s impossible really.”
A rousing reception greeted Mr Rudd on his arrival at the Corridor of Oaks. Some parents, like Faulconbridge firefighter Craig Webb kept their children home to witness the historic event.
“I get to see the prime minister,” his 10-year old daughter Jamie said minutes before Mr Rudd’s arrival. “The former prime minister,” corrected her dad. “Yes, the old prime minister, but I wouldn’t want to do that job, it’s probably non-stop and you wouldn’t get many breaks,” Jamie added.
Jamie Webb was right. Apart from the official ceremony, Mr Rudd’s morning included a visit to the Blue Mountains Gazette office, a stop-start walk up Macquarie Road, lunch with angry current and ex-TAFE students concerned about threatened State Government cuts to courses and a visit to St Columba’s school to examine one of four trades training centres built by the Federal Government in the area.
And that was all before 2pm.
During the official tree planting ceremony, Gundungurra elder Sharyn Halls thanked the former PM for his historic apology to indigenous Australians.
“Some of my family didn’t live to see it, but it was so important to me personally, to my family and extended family.”
Blue Mountains Mayor Daniel Myles presented Mr Rudd with a plaque adding “it would be remiss of me being on local council not to hand over a funding submission as well” — the submission was for a $400,869 grant to help improve the Corridor of Oaks, link it to Sir Henry Parkes’s grave and pay for safety fencing, paving, walkways, gardens, plaques and interpretive signing. Mr Rudd said he would hand it over to Anthony Albanese, the minister for infrastructure.
As the 26th prime minister to plant a tree, Mr Rudd used the official spade which has been used to plant every prime ministers’ oak, a spade recently donated to council by the Athrop family.
He told the gathered crowd we lived in an halcyon era compared to prime ministers past who were honoured in the forest of oaks behind him.
“Our founding fathers who shaped Federation had to take these six squabbling colonies and hash out a better nation. Convincing my mob from Queensland to come on board was nothing short of remarkable, convincing the West Australians — that was a miracle, but they did. These were difficult things and leadership was necessary.”
Mr Rudd reflected on his Queensland counterpart, the Great War prime minister and son of a coal miner, Andrew Fisher, who worked in pits as a 12-year-old and watched men and boys die there and then had to send “men and boys to die in trenches”. Others, like Jim Scullin, had faced an “avalanche of devastation when the Great Depression landed on our shores”.
Reflecting on the challenges of governments past and present, he added “as the son of a couple of Queensland battlers — neither of my parents ever really went to high school and as someone who owes his educational opportunities to earlier governments, principally E. G.Whitlam, I’m honoured to be among you today.”
Mr Rudd joked with the mayor and assembled guests saying he was “pleased to look on this plot — but it has a certain finality about it. I’m pleased the hole is only that size.”
Was Mr Rudd disappointed not to be planting the tree while living at the Lodge after being unceremoniously dumped by his own party? He hadn’t really thought about it, he said.
“I’m the sort of person who prefers to look forwards rather than backwards. That said you have a really good tradition here, a tradition that honours people for the better part of a century.”
With Howard’s new tree still in its infancy (council could not confirm whether it was, as rumoured, the fifth replacement tree) was Mr Rudd worried his tree might be vandalised? “It is inevitable, I’m pretty philosophical.”
Did he take a good look at Menzies’ tree, a man who had been toppled by his own party and returned to the prime ministership eight years later? Mr Rudd wouldn’t comment.
“I love agriculture,” he added obtusely. “People around Australia are very kind to me.”
Daily Mr Rudd communicates with 1million people on Twitter and a 1.2million on Facebook but Labor would have to work hard to sell its record to regain the seat of Macquarie, he said.
“The Liberal National Party government in Macquarie Street is cutting back big time on vocational education and training, the Federal Government is radically adding to vocational training. We’re putting our money where our mouth is and the other people are putting their money where there mouth is because they are taking it away. There are very clear contrast points.”
The Corridor of Oaks was established by Joseph Jackson, Federal member for Nepean, who bought and donated the land to Blue Mountains Council so it would become a national living memorial opposite Sir Henry Parkes’ former residence, Faulconbridge House.
Federal member for Macquarie Louise Markus was in attendance, along with numerous Mountains political representatives past and present.
Joseph Lyons was the first prime minister to plant an oak tree on September 12, 1934.
The last prime minister to the Corridor of Oaks was John Howard in 2000.
Blue Mountains Mayor Daniel Myles said the oak trees had been planted by each prime minister, or their closest living relative, forming a living memorial to Sir Henry Parkes, Federation of Australia and the federal prime ministers.
“It is important to continue to have commemorative oaks planted by prime ministers to retain the cultural significance of the site,” Mr Myles said.
No word yet when our current prime minister Julia Gillard will take up council’s offer to plant her tree which will take its place in front of Mr Rudd’s.
Ms Gillard’s last visit to the area was in 2007.