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 Monday, November 05, 2007

Kevin Rudd: Australia's Prime Minister in Waiting


Barbie Dutter

Read here full article in The Telegraph (UK)

According to its most famous housewife, Australia is not yet ready to be led by a man named Kevin. But for once, Dame Edna Everage seems to have got it wrong.

In less than three weeks, her fellow Australians are set to oust John Howard, their conservative-minded prime minister of 11½ years, and replace him with Kevin Rudd, the Labour leader.

Kevin Rudd is favourite to become Australia’s next prime minister.

A man of ferocious intellect, but with such boyish features and a fringe so feathery that satirists have nicknamed him Tintin, Mr Rudd seems to be almost home and dry, even though the general election campaign is barely at the halfway point.

Mr Howard's defeat would mean the departure from office of the last of US President George W Bush's original, staunch allies on Iraq, and the withdrawal of Australia's 550 combat troops stationed around Baghdad – both factors that are encouraging voters to desert him for Labour.

Even so, the 50-year-old Mr Rudd, a studious former diplomat, is surprising seasoned political observers with the warmth of the response that he is generating on the campaign trail. "Hi, I'm Kevin," is his customary opening gambit; "Good luck, mate!" the usual response.

As Mr Rudd canvassed for votes last week in the shopping malls of suburban constituencies around Brisbane, currently held by Mr Howard's Liberal party, there was little sign of the prime minister's supporters – despite his government's impressive record of economic stewardship and its smorgasbord of multi-billion-dollar election promises.

Nobody jeered the Labour leader. Not one heckler surfaced. Those who weren't fans simply carried on with their chores. Voters, however, streamed out of supermarkets, chemists and coffee shops, seizing Mr Rudd's hand and willing him to win the poll on November 24.

He cut a slightly stiff figure in his black suit, as he chatted to pensioners clad in the eccentric Queensland livery of shorts, long socks and sandals. His shoulders were somewhat hunched, his walk a little shambling. And when he forgot to paint on his luminous campaign smile, his face was a picture of toad-like intensity. But the punters seemed genuinely to like him, and he was never more comfortable than when outlining Labour's political pledges to those who posed questions.

Unlike Mr Howard, who has a bear hug for everyone, Mr Rudd seemed gawky, even uptight, amid the back-slapping informality of mortgage- belt Australia.

"What we are seeing is not the spontaneous Kevin Rudd. What we are seeing is a very controlled Kevin Rudd who knows that this is make or break," said one commentator who has followed Mr Rudd's career. "He is a much warmer and wittier person than we are seeing, but because there have been so many stuff-ups by Labour in the past he is being ruthlessly disciplined."

If keeping the campaign gaffe-free is a priority, then Mr Rudd must know that traipsing around shopping malls with a media pack in tow is perilous territory indeed. And there was one unscripted moment when it seemed his carefully crafted political persona might be spectacularly demolished.

Dropping on to bended knee to greet a pensioner on an electric scooter, Mr Rudd was confronted by an ample bosom that didn't so much heave as writhe.

As his eyes became saucers, Jean Goodwin, 72, reached into her blouse for a vigorous rummage. When, finally, she fished out a tiny possum – announcing that she ran a rescue centre for native animals – Mr Rudd guffawed with relief.

"I love Kevin to bits. He's the best thing that's ever happened to Australia," declared Miss Goodwin later.

"He was a little alarmed at the moving boob, but I think he got over it," she said. The most serious criticism to date of Mr Rudd and his party is that they have engaged in flagrant "me too-ism" in mimicking Mr Howard's election promises.

When the prime minister pledged tax cuts of A$34 billion (£15.2 billion), Mr Rudd announced a policy that was 90 per cent identical.

He has also matched promises in the areas of land for public housing, roads funding, defence spending and senior citizens' allowances.

But Mr Rudd told The Sunday Telegraph that there were several core areas of difference that proved Labour had distinct and ambitious plans for Australia's future: "On the economy Mr Howard says, effectively, that the mining boom will last for ever," he said, referring to the vast wealth being generated by mineral and energy sales to China and India.

"A realistic view of economic history in this country says it won't. Prudent economic policy lies in planning for the future."

There will be A$4.7 billion for high-speed broadband, and a proposed federal takeover of public hospitals from the states if A$2.5 billion of reforms fail. An "education revolution" is promised. And on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol will be ratified – something that Mr Howard, in line with his friend Mr Bush, has refused to contemplate – and strict renewable energy targets set.

Also central to Labour's campaign is the end of controversial industrial relations legislation, perceived as favouring the employer, that was introduced by the Howard government.

In suburban Brisbane, where hip-pocket issues are uppermost, this seemed to be a winner. Ryan Willcox, a 24-year-old plumber, strode up to Mr Rudd with an effusive message of thanks for helping "us workers".

"I think he's fair dinkum," said Mr Willcox, adopting the Australian idiom that roughly translates as "genuine". "I believe what he says. I don't believe a word that comes out of John Howard's mouth."

Under Labour, replacing the Queen with an Australian head of state would return to the agenda, though any referendum on a republic would be unlikely before 2010.

Mr Rudd, a committed Christian who speaks fluent Mandarin, and his wife, Therese Rein, have three children. She is a self-made millionaire who had the good grace to forgive her husband over a drunken visit to a New York strip club in 2003.

His visit and subsequent apology were met by voters as proof that the straight-laced politician is actually a normal, red-blooded bloke.

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