Unfashionable Rudd turns his back on a free harbour view

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2008, 12:00am


Eight months after the Kevin Rudd-led Labor Party swept into government, Sydneysiders are gradually coming to terms with a shift in power from the their city to the concrete canyons of Canberra.

Not only is Mr Rudd (known in China as Lu Kewen) being a Putonghua-speaking former bureaucrat suspicious enough - but he also hails from Queensland, a part of Australia quite foreign to Sydney's latte-sipping elites. Indeed, Mr Rudd is the first Queenslander to hold the top job since Andrew Fisher in 1915.

Dame Edna Everage, a character played by comedian Barry Humphries, famously predicted that her countrymen would never vote for a prime minister called Kevin - especially one who resembled a country dentist.

'He has a perpetual look of disdain on his face,' Dame Edna remarked. 'As though looking into the mouth of Australia and tut-tutting at substandard bridge work performed by someone else.'

Apart from his unfashionable first name, social conservatism and geeky image, the prime minister also carries the burden of not being from either Sydney or Melbourne, the two engine rooms of Australian politics.

But his sins to do not end there. Traditionally, the prime minister has two official residences - The Lodge in Canberra and Kirribilli House, a mansion overlooking Sydney Harbour. The last three incumbents - John Howard, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke - always treated Kirribilli as their official residence, returning reluctantly to the Canberra chill. 'If you want a friend in Canberra, then get a dog,' Mr Keating once said.

Unlike Mr Howard and Mr Keating, who are both native Sydneysiders, and Mr Hawke, who was born in Western Australia but later adopted the harbour city as his home, Mr Rudd seems to have no interest in Sydney.

Indeed, apart from major events such as World Youth Day and Apec, Mr Rudd scarcely visits the New South Wales capital, preferring to inspect dry riverbeds in the Outback or jet around Southeast Asian cities.

Although Mr Rudd's fluency in Putonghua (he has an honours degree from the Australian National University) and his Christian values (raised a Catholic, he now attends an Anglican church) have been the source of much comment, what sets him apart is his provincial upbringing.

Greg Craven, professor of constitutional law at Curtin University, believes that Mr Rudd's tough upbringing on a Queensland farm was a major factor in helping him win the election. People outside the major cities identified with Mr Rudd's story of rural poverty and dogged persistence.

'Howard struggled with the sheer size and diversity of the nation,' Professor Craven said. 'Rudd, from the banana-ridden back blocks of Queensland, was always a better regional fit.'

Recent opinion polls suggest that Mr Rudd's personal approval across the nation remains strong, despite escalating petrol prices and interest rate rises.

Australians generally seem to enjoy the mystique of Mr Rudd's rise from struggle street to The Lodge, but the story has less resonance in Sydney, where catching a morning bus can seem like Herculean task and people expect a bit more public display of wealth and power.

As a city of postcode snobs, no one can quite work out why Mr Rudd, having been given a rent-free harbour view, doesn't spend more time at Kirribilli. You may be big in Nambour, Kevin, but nobody turns their back on a piece of prime Sydney real estate.