I worked for the Rudd government for just more than a year in 2009 and early 2010, including seven months as one of Kevin Rudd's speechwriters. I met him only four times in that period, so I don't know him well.
I know Julia Gillard even less, but I know many people who have worked closely with, and for, both of them, and I base the comments that follow on their experience, as well as my own.
Rudd did some good things as prime minister. He led the government's brave and successful response to the global financial crisis. He increased foreign aid and fought for better treatment for cancers. His apology to indigenous people changed Australia and will be remembered for years to come.
Although he was humiliated, and in a sense defeated, by his backdown on the emissions trading scheme, he worked intensely hard to get a good result at COP15 in Copenhagen.
He could be funny and charming, when he chose to be. Although he was often wooden in his speech-making, he could be great with the punters, as he liked to call them. I saw him orchestrate, with folksy brilliance, a convention of 3000 Lions club members into a state-by-state Mexican wave. Personally, I was grateful when he agreed to speak at the launch of a writing prize in the name of my father, John Button, a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments.
But Rudd's prime ministership failed, and the failure was above all his own. The story of his government, and of its end, has still not been fully told. The consequence has been deep damage to Australians' faith in politics and in government.
The truth is, Rudd was impossible to work with. He regularly treated his staff, public servants and backbenchers with rudeness and contempt. He could be vindictive, intervening to deny people appointments or preselections, sometimes based on grudges going back years.
He made crushing demands on his staff, and when they laboured through the night to meet those demands, they received no thanks, and often the work was not used. People who dared to stand up to him were put in "the freezer" and not consulted or spoken to for months.
His staff's prodigious loyalty was mostly not repaid. He put people down behind their backs. He seemed to feel that everyone was always letting him down. In meetings, as I saw, he could emanate a kind of icy rage that was as mysterious as it was disturbing.
He governed by, and seemed almost to thrive on, crisis. Important papers went unsigned; staff and public servants would be pulled onto flights, in at least one case halfway around the world, on the off-chance that he needed to consult them.
Vital decisions were held up while he struggled to make up his mind, frequently demanding more pieces of information that merely delayed the final result. The fate of the government seemed to hinge on the psychology of one man.
As I watched this unfold in Canberra, I tried hard to put aside my poor experience of working for Rudd. I had been a journalist for more than 20 years and knew that just because three people complain about something or someone does not make it true. When 30 or more witnesses complain, you can start to believe it.
I kept waiting, and wanting, to hear the other side of the story: that Rudd could be unpleasant but that, overall, he was a good bloke, or that his chaotic management style did not impair his effectiveness.
But, amazingly, apart from a handful of conversations praising his formidable intelligence, his efforts on the economic crisis and the fact that he left some ministers alone to do their work, there was no other side to the story. Hard-bitten commentators will say that character, or kindness, are irrelevant to politics; what counts is getting the job done. But you can never escape the human factor. In the first six months of 2010, Rudd's personality and government policy collided, to catastrophic effect.
People saw it coming. As much as four months before his downfall, Canberra insiders were warning that in the next few months Rudd had to land his health plan, the Henry tax review, a new plan for the carbon pollution reduction scheme after it had been defeated in the Senate, and the federal budget.
Each one was a massive operation. Each one required months of parliamentary and public battle. It was like trying to land four jumbo jets at once on the same runway, and people said it could not be done.
Some of these people were in a position to say these things to Rudd but he had stopped listening. He shut them out. While the clock was ticking and those aircraft were descending, Rudd kept visiting one more hospital, creating one more media opportunity with one more entrapped patient.
As a result, policy was neither properly prepared nor argued. Rudd focused obsessively on the health reforms, which turned out to be unimportant, and too little on the carbon scheme and the mining tax, which mattered immensely. It was in these circumstances, with the polls tumbling and mining companies' anger rising, that Gillard took the decision to mount a leadership challenge.
As I said, I hardly know Gillard. But from my own impressions and from conversations with people who do know her well and who have worked for her, I believe she is a decent person. She is warm and smart. She listens to people and treats them with respect. She has shown guts and, under relentless pressure, has run a happy office.
I have no idea of the precise moment at which she decided to challenge Rudd, but I am certain she had been as loyal a deputy as he was likely to get. Through the hard months of early 2010 she had long talks with him to keep him on track. In all the whisperings I heard against Rudd until the time I left Canberra in April 2010, none of it involved her. In fact, she protected her leader. As one of her advisers said, they were "joined at the hip".
But she also knew what Rudd was like. In mid-2010, I imagine, she saw him spinning; saw the polls; saw an election approaching; believed that, in this climate, his capacity for chaos was likely to grow rather than diminish.
This was not about ambition. Sure she might have wanted to be prime minister one day, but not under these circumstances; not with the consequences that were bound to follow. But in politics you don't get to pick your moment, it picks you. Hers came and she took it.
What she and others failed to do was explain why. This was a task of almost unimaginable difficulty. She had been his deputy; she shared responsibility for the state of the government. I also imagine she did not want to add to Rudd's pain by stressing his flaws.
And she would not be human if she had not also felt some guilt. Nevertheless, the coup was an act of great political violence. It had to be explained in ideas and language that measured up to the act.
She had to find the words to tell Australians about the crisis Rudd had created. Then she had to send him to the backbench. There was no chance, in that moment, of reparation or reconciliation. No chance the act could be explained as merely the unfortunate result of a good government losing its way. In that moment, when the story was not told, the insider-outsider gap of Australian politics became a chasm.
This is all easy to say with hindsight. I supported the coup at the time, and misread its meaning and consequences as much as anyone. Australians were not ready for this. They did not follow the frenetic tweets on the night of the challenge. They were not on the other end of a phone outside a Vietnamese restaurant in Canberra. The next morning they woke up to a new prime minister and they knew they had not been told the whole story.
The deed was murky and brutal, and we still don't know quite how it happened, but we can be clear about why. If it was only the act of faceless men, as Rudd has said, why was the caucus majority against him so overwhelming that he did not even dare to stand?
On Monday, a Fairfax journalist, Katharine Murphy, wrote that Rudd's swearing and ranting on a recently leaked YouTube video only confirmed what everyone in Canberra knew about his character. "Who knew that?" she wrote. "Well, all of us. We were there - the political staff, bureaucrats, colleagues, journalists, the public who got that side of Rudd through the accounts we all wrote - piecing it together. It wasn't that long ago."
But was the story really told? And how and when? I think it was told, at best, in drip form, by leaks, and mostly after Rudd was deposed. In 2009 it was Canberra's best-kept secret that his dysfunctional personality was damaging the government. "I wake up every morning waiting for the headlines," a senior official once told me but, with one or two exceptions, the headlines never appeared.
I suspect the media only hazily knew the truth. Perhaps the story was hard to tell, when Rudd was so popular with voters. This was a pity. Had it been more widely known earlier, Rudd's colleagues might have been compelled to force him to change.
We all knew, wrote Murphy. But a year after Rudd fell I would meet ordinary people, interested in politics, who would ask: "What happened to Kevin Rudd?" When I explained some things I knew about him, they would often say, "I had no idea."
Why the story was not told is complicated, and is by no means the media's responsibility alone. In government people keep quiet; that's the contract. In recent years, the control of information has increased, perhaps to a fault. Rudd, in particular, ran a tightly scripted show. But there's something bigger at work, too.
Strangely, the information age seems to have made grasping the truth of things harder. The shrinking of the broad base of political parties; their failure to tell stories that inspire and ring true; the increasing lack of penetration of the serious media; the rarity of deep analysis, told in a compelling way; the 60-second YouTube videos that portray Julia as robotic or Kevin as a knockabout bloke who swears a bit too much; the distrust and distraction of we the people: all these promote misunderstanding. They are death to an engaged politics.
They have also created a gulf between the public Rudd and the one that people who work closely with him know. And, coupled with her own inability to reveal the truth about why she toppled him, they have devastated Gillard's chances.
I think people misunderstand Gillard. In time her minority government will be judged far more kindly than it is today. She has got cabinet working again after Rudd effectively shut it down. Through her negotiating skills and capacity for patience and respect, she has got big things done.
Yes, she has made mistakes. All new prime ministers do: look at John Howard's first 18 months. However, the Rudd government's skilful economic management has continued on her watch.
Unemployment remains low. The mining tax; the national disability insurance scheme; means-testing the private healthcare rebate; support for higher pay for community sector workers; the changes to schools proposed in the Gonski Report: these are all big reforms in the best Labor tradition.
By initiating Ken Henry's white paper looking at Australia's place in the coming Asian century, Gillard has begun the process of telling a much bigger story about our future, the absence of which has dogged and trivialised politics for years.
Even in Labor's weakest, most mistake-ridden policy area, on asylum seekers, the government has been quietly and successfully moving large numbers of people out of detention and into the community.
Most importantly, the carbon tax is an historic reform, the start of Australia's contribution to the long battle to save the planet. All these shape a platform on which Labor could still mount a winning campaign against Tony Abbott.
Voters need a clear sense of the policies of both major parties. In Abbott's case, how will he repeal the carbon price and trading scheme yet still fund the Liberals' climate change commitments? If he cuts the mining tax, how will he ensure Australians get a fair share of the wealth generated by the boom? How will he turn back boats without risking lives? What is his larger story for Australia? Democracy runs on this kind of scrutiny and it's not happening.
Rudd could have helped it to happen, not by challenging Gillard but by getting behind her. By accepting responsibility, even in part, for his own role in his downfall. By acknowledging that his actions had left her with few options but to challenge, and by pledging, convincingly, to support her.
In return, Rudd and the country deserved a full public reckoning, by the prime minister and the coup plotters, covering the manner in which he was deposed. A reckoning that respected his achievements as prime minister. A Labor truth and reconciliation commission.
Granted, such a course required heroic actions by Rudd. Yet as hard as they were, they would have not only cemented his place in Labor history, they might also have given him peace of mind. Believe it or not, some things are more important over a lifetime than being prime minister.
Instead, on Monday, Rudd will challenge for the leadership. If he fails he may quit politics altogether. His actions will further bring down a party he claims to be committed to. And if he loses or quits there will be a torrent of sympathy. What about the Rudd who handed out blankets to bushfire victims and cried on TV? Who visited homeless shelters and waded through floods carrying people's suitcases? Who was destroyed by faceless ALP apparatchiks? What about poor, crucified Kevin?
It is far too simple a picture. It is long past time that the truth of the past three years was properly told.
James Button is a former Age journalist who worked for the Rudd government for 15 months. He is writing a book about the experience.