Kevin Rudd

Milky Bar Kid for PM?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am

The man tipped to become Australia's next prime minister has not escaped the sharp-tongued wit of the purple-haired housewife from Moonee Ponds. 'Do we want a prime minister who looks like a dentist?' Dame Edna Everage, otherwise known as comedian Barry Humphries, asked of the Labor Party leader in a recent stage show. 'Is Australia ready for a leader named Kevin?' Australians delight in mocking politicians and they have had a field day with Kevin Rudd.

His youthful appearance, spectacles and blond quiff have earned him the nicknames Tintin, Harry Potter and the Milkybar Kid.

For his deep Christian faith and devotion to family values, the father of three has been dubbed St Kevin.

He is seen as a bit of a nerd, a schoolboy swot. He claims to have got drunk just twice in his life - once on his 35th birthday, and the second time during a boozy boys' night out in New York four years ago, when he was lured into a strip club.

It was a revelation that surprised the nation, disclosing an unexpectedly racy streak in the church-going family man.

Mr Rudd appears to take the nicknames in good humour. The jokes are lost, however, on the ruling coalition government.

He looks set to succeed in toppling Prime Minister John Howard where his three predecessors - Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and Mark Latham - failed.

The latest opinion poll, out this week, gives Labor a 43 to 57 per cent lead over the government. It also showed Mr Rudd's personal approval rating had risen to 67 per cent, while Mr Howard's remained at 50 per cent.

The federal election has yet to be called, but it will almost certainly be held before Christmas.

Pollsters are predicting an overwhelming election victory for Labor, bringing to an end Mr Howard's 11 years in office, and Australia is preparing itself for a Rudd government.

So who is Kevin Rudd, and what makes him tick?

He was born in the lush hinterland of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, the son of a dairy farmer. When he was just 11, his father was involved in a horrific car crash, surviving the collision, but dying a few weeks later of septicaemia (commonly referred to as blood poisoning).

Kevin and his three siblings were shocked to find that their father had never owned the 160-hectare farm on which they lived - he was a tenant. Within months, the family was turfed off the land, plunging them into poverty.

With nowhere to live, Mr Rudd remembers his mother breaking down in tears one night and telling her children they would have to sleep in the car. 'No one in Australia should have to suffer that kind of insecurity,' he once said.

His father's death was followed by years of uncertainty, when he changed schools and lived with various relatives as his mother, a nurse, struggled to make ends meet.

The experience forged in him a keen sense of social justice.

Despite his family being long-standing members of the conservative Country Party, he joined the Labor Party as soon as he turned 15. Poverty also instilled in Mr Rudd a fierce determination to succeed and a hunger for work.

'Insecurity is something that he's tried to combat,' Mr Rudd's older brother told The Bulletin magazine this week. 'And you combat it by being well-planned, well-briefed, well-resourced.'

At school, the future Labor leader was a straight-A student.

'I always thought Kevin didn't need to be taught,' his former teacher, Fay Barber, said in an interview last year. 'He understood before you told him anything.'

His voracious reading had convinced him that China was the power of the future, so in 1976 he enrolled in a degree in Chinese language and history at the Australian National University in Canberra. He graduated with first-class honours.

He then joined the Australian diplomatic service in 1981, serving first in Stockholm, before being sent to Beijing, a posting he loved, with his young wife, Therese.

He has maintained his fluent putonghua, and managed to upstage Mr Howard at the recent Apec summit by chatting easily in Chinese with President Hu Jintao .

After seven years as a diplomat, Mr Rudd realised that he wanted to make policy, not just implement it.

He resigned from the foreign service and took a job as chief of staff to the state Labor Party in Queensland, which was then in opposition. It was his first foray into politics.

Mr Rudd helped steer Labor to victory in Queensland in 1989 and was promoted to director-general of the cabinet office.

In 1996, he contested the federal seat of Griffith and lost. His self-confidence took a huge blow, and he went off to work for professional services company KPMG as a China consultant.

Two years later he was back in the political fray; he won the seat of Griffith and has held it ever since.

Friends and colleagues say his initial failure to be elected to federal parliament was a blessing in disguise. It reined in his intellectual arrogance and a tendency to pomposity.

'There's a story about Rudd from about 1996,' said Canberra journalist Nicholas Stuart, whose unauthorised biography of the politician was published in June. 'Everyone was standing around a barbecue talking about a rugby league grand final. Kevin comes up, it all goes quiet, and he chirps up with something about how interesting it will be when China engages in world trade. People suddenly discovered their glasses needed refilling. He had the ability to clear a room.'

Mr Rudd made a conscious effort to reinvent himself, shedding his image as a brainy technocrat and trying to identify more with ordinary people.

'He's changed 100 per cent since then,' said Stuart. 'He can mix it with the typically Australian ocker bloke if he has to. He's an incredibly complex person. He can discuss arcane points of political philosophy, then suddenly switch and talk about the cricket.'

His reputation as an intellectual and a technocrat is no bad thing, said Nick Economou, a political scientist at Monash University in Melbourne.

'He's bright, capable and conservative, and the Australian electorate is conservative,' he said. 'He comes across as someone who is dependable and trustworthy.'

So how would Australia change, if as seems likely, Mr Rudd becomes prime minister?

He has pledged to sign the Kyoto protocol on global warming - something Mr Howard has consistently refused to do - and try to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

A Labor government would swiftly withdraw Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq, but would consider increasing the nation's military operations in Afghanistan.

As a committed Sinophile, Mr Rudd would strengthen the already close economic and diplomatic ties between Canberra and Beijing, while trying to maintain the crucial alliance with the United States.

'He'll carve out a more independent foreign policy,' said Stuart.

'He has deep and intimate links with America, but there'll be less sycophancy. He'll resist joining any kind of anti-China quadripartite alliance with the US, Japan and India. There'll be even closer economic links with China.'

Labor has not won a federal election since 1993. If he wins this one, Mr Rudd will be anxious not to rock the boat and continue the 14-year run of economic growth that has made Australians wealthier than ever before.

'It will be steady as she goes,' Dr Economou said.

'Labor may wind back some of the government's industrial relations reforms, and they'll probably give more money to health and higher education, but it won't be a dramatic change.'

Fiercely ambitious, hard-working and perhaps a little dull, Mr Rudd has come a long way from his childhood amid the sleepy sugar cane farms of southeastern Queensland.

So is Australia ready for a leader named Kevin?

If the opinion polls of the last few weeks are anything to go by, the answer appears to be a resounding yes.