What a difference six months make. At the start of this year, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose Labor Party won a landslide election in 2007, was still regarded as the poster child for a new Australia. Like a superman, he flew around his nation and the world tirelessly working to help Australia avert the global financial crisis that had tainted other major economies. He wooed foreign investment in his homeland's natural resources and he bonded on the world stage with his political soulmate, Barack Obama, in an effort to combat climate change. In due course, the center-left leader was rewarded with the highest popularity figures in Australian history, scoring an approval rating of 74% in a March 2009 poll. Was there anything K-Rudd couldn't do? Yes, it turns out keeping his own party loyal when the tide turned.
On June 24, Rudd's own party unceremoniously dumped him for his deputy Julia Gillard, turning the former political wunderkind into Australia's shortest-serving Prime Minister in almost four decades. Labor's change of heart, though, had less to do with Australia's shifting priorities than a feeling that Rudd had neglected to safeguard the ideals he so strongly advocated during his campaign and at the start of his term. He came to be seen a flip-flopper on key issues like the environment. In other areas, his steadfastness was increasingly perceived as mule-headedness. Loyalty to his inner circle, meanwhile, began to look disturbingly like a failure to consult with other party elders.
At first, Rudd seemed like he could do no wrong. As a killer drought parched Australia and big industry contaminated the land and air, he vowed to punish polluters and right other environmental wrongs. His first order of business as Prime Minister was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty against global warming that his conservative predecessor John Howard had neglected to sign.
At a time when China had emerged as Australia's biggest trading partner, Rudd could also say with confidence that he knew how to handle the Chinese. After all, he was the first foreign leader to speak fluent Mandarin, having served as a diplomat in the People's Republic during the 1980s. His university thesis centered on a Chinese democracy activist a sign, perhaps, that Rudd would not compromise his political ideals in the face of a flood of Chinese investment.
At his best, Rudd, like Bill Clinton in the United States, could make every Australian whatever their background feel like they belonged. Just weeks after he took office, he issued a historic apology to the so-called "stolen generations" of Aborigines indigenous Australians who, under assimilation policies enforced until the 1970s, were taken from their homes and placed with white families or in institutions.
But then came the missteps. His gift for inclusiveness alternated with a harsh stance on foreign asylum-seekers and a tendency to sound, when expounding on policy, like a particularly finicky professor. And though a few genuine displays of emotion resonated with the public, like his teary response to the fatal Australian wildfires of Feb. 2009, tales of his explosive temper weren't quite as endearing. A June essay in the influential Sydney Morning Herald by political journalist David Marr couldn't have been published at a worse time. Marr painted Rudd as a man motivated by anger, setting down anecdotes of his tantrums. "That insight came at a time when the population was beginning to question all aspects of Kevin Rudd's leadership," says Richard Dennis, executive director of think-tank the Australian Institute.
Bungles and policy lapses were even more damaging. Despite his China expertise, Rudd didn't seem to have any more success than other leaders in dealing with Beijing. Then, in February, Rudd was forced to take responsibility for a deeply flawed, $2.35 billion home insulation scheme. Devised partly as an economic stimulus measure, and partly as an energy reduction initiative, the project was characterized by substandard installations that led to 93 house fires and 4 deaths.
Most damaging of all was the perception that Rudd, who once described climate change as one of the biggest "moral dilemmas of our time," had abandoned his commitment to being green. Some of his most ardent supporters, particularly young voters, were horrified when he announced in April that he would shelve an emissions-trading scheme that had secured him many votes back in 2007. The environmental backtracking was followed by a suddenly proposed and poorly explained "super profits" tax on mining. The levy was mooted so quickly that trade minister Simon Crean admitted that he first read about it in a newspaper. Who exactly was Kevin Rudd and what did he stand for? It seemed that not even members of his administration knew. And now, after a party coup executed in just hours, most Australians will never need to know.
With reporting by Marina Kamenev / Sydney