Kevin Rudd took on what appeared to be an unenviable challenge when he became leader of the Australian Labor Party in December last year. It was to sell himself to the Australian people in time for an election due within a year that would pit him against Prime Minister John Howard, who, after a decade in office, had come to be regarded by many, including himself, as the natural leader of the country.
Eleven months later, and on the eve of the election, Rudd looks set to drive Howard into retirement and return the ALP to power for the first time since 1996. In some ways, Rudd has had a smoother ride than he might have expected. His elevation to the leadership resulted in Labor immediately overtaking the Liberal-National Coalition government in opinion polls a lead it hasn't relinquished since. Australians don't even seem to mind that Rudd espouses some of the same policies as Howard. What is important is that Kevin Rudd is not John Howard.
Indeed, on many issues a new pulp mill in Tasmania, tax cuts, school funding Rudd has simply echoed the government. That tendency prompted long-serving Treasurer Peter Costello to declare: "The more I hear from Kevin Rudd, the more I wonder whether even Kevin Rudd wants a change of government."
Costello's point is valid enough, but so is the Rudd approach. Rudd knows Howard was vulnerable at the last election, in 2004. But Labor at that time was led by Mark Latham, who was quick-tempered and volatile, (at one time, he called George Bush as "the most incompetent and dangerous President in living memory"). Latham also espoused ideas too left-wing for a country that likes its politics fought in the center. Clearly, many Australians had tired of Howard and stopped listening to him, but needed a credible alternative before taking the next step of kicking him out. In the smooth-talking, God-fearing, 50-year-old Rudd, the top student of his high school, father of three and a former diplomat and high-ranking state bureaucrat, they appear to think they've found one.
Nothing has dented Rudd's popularity. The revelation earlier this year that, in 2003, he visited a strip club in Manhattan with New York Post editor Col Allan served only to color in a somewhat bland personality; to many, he was now a flesh and blood Aussie male. Nor did the release during the campaign of YouTube footage showing Rudd tasting his own earwax during a parliamentary debate in 2001 (he claims he was scratching his chin!) do him any discernible harm.
Whether a Labor government would manage Australia's $1 trillion economy as adeptly as have Howard and Costello remains a voter concern, according to polls. However, Rudd has largely defused economic management as an issue. The thrust of his case is that Australia's strong economy is less the result of any judicious handling on the part of the government than of the ongoing minerals boom and watershed reforms undertaken in the 1980s by Labor governments. He's repeatedly cast himself as an economic conservative and tried to prove it by declining to match the government's extravagant spending promises.
Rudd is offering the country just enough tinkering around the edges of government policy in the areas of Iraq (a phased pull out of Australia's 1,400 troops), industrial relations (abolition of an unpopular Howard program) climate change (ratifying the Kyoto Protocol), education (more laptops in high schools) and communications (faster Internet access) to convince Australians that it's worth making a change. "After 11 years, it's now time to turn the page on this government," Rudd says. "Australia is a great country but not as great as we can be."
All this temperance has injected one big question among Australians: who is this man who is likely to become the country's leader? Traditional, left-leaning Labor voters are generally lukewarm about Rudd and his softly-softly approach, but hope he'll fire up once in power. Labor's environment spokesman Peter Garrett gave them encouragement when he told an off-duty talkback radio host: "Once we get in we'll just change it all" a remark condemned by the rest of his party as a monumental gaffe. That's precisely why Australians are uncertain of Rudd: is he the Steady Kevvie who's been on show this past year, or is he simply an old-fashioned lefty play-acting the only role that can undo John Howard's rule? Australians will be placing their bets on Saturday.