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Dr Death and Mr Rudd

10 June 2009 1,606 views No Comment

VOTERS are discovering another side to Kevin Rudd that those who followed his career in Queensland were already aware of: the Prime Minister has a nasty streak.

Earlier this month a Galaxy Research poll for News Limited metropolitan newspapers found that 43 per cent of voters thought Rudd was someone who could turn nasty if he didn’t get his own way.

Unlike John Howard, who stayed true to the suburban solicitor he started out as, Rudd’s whole life is an artifice. With his blond hair, round face, round glasses and wholesome values, he would have us believe he’s the Milky Bar Kid. Yet the public side of Rudd’s character — the church-going fundamental (yes, really) conservatism of his social mores; his fixation with the Nazi-era victim Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a light on his personal hill (he might find Thomas a Kempis a deeper inspiration and a stronger spiritual guide); his unimpeachable standing as a good father and family man — is at odds with the darker, less meritorious private side. It emerges in times of stress in a measure of petulance that is surprising given his intellect. He is a foot-stamper. He must have his way. It is he who is foreman material; everyone else is “the troops”.

It is not meant to be dismissive; it just happens, in the same way as his cheery public salute to George W. Bush in Washington, shortly after Bush had anointed Rudd the new man of steel. That bit of muddled PR jarred nerves and raised eyebrows. It sounded as if it had come straight from the scout den.

In part, Rudd’s emphasis on control is a natural and understandable response to the instant demands of the Twitter age. He has a website named, with complete lack of gravitas, KevinPM, a moniker that must be causing mass rollovers in the graves of long-dead prime ministers in many places that, as Tony Blair pioneered in Britain, seek to directly engage the people and co-opt them to the cause.

But to understand Rudd as a political leader in ascendancy (and to get a handle on how he might react when on the downhill slide), we need to go back to the uncouth corridors of power in state government in Queensland.

It was not so much that he won his spurs in that environment as the number of wounds he caused with them. Rudd, first as Wayne Goss’s chief of staff in opposition, then in 1989-94 as head of the premier’s office and later director-general of the new office of cabinet (itself a Rudd invention), set out to centralise power with himself as the fulcrum. He played the role assiduously. He invented the persona of Dr Death and played it for all it was worth. Indeed on the night Rudd was elected federal ALP leader on December 4, 2006, he said on the ABC’s The 7.30 Report that he “always regarded (Dr Death) as a term of supreme affection”. It was only in 2007, after the combative Tony Abbott beat it to death in parliament that Rudd showed any pain. The term was eventually ruled out of order by the then Liberal speaker.

In the private Rudd narrative it was not Goss who turned the Queensland public service into a quivering wreck after 1989, it was Rudd. In this personal rendering of history, while Goss surfed to power over the flotsam and jetsam of the Bjelke-Petersen years, it was a prototype of Kevin 24/7, powering along just within word-in-the-ear range of his Labor leader, who provided the guidance, kicked in the motive power, and pointed out the best breaks.

Labor in Queensland 20 years ago swept into office on a wave of desire for change. But though it promised much, it delivered little. Rudd left in 1994, just when the wheels were beginning to come off the Goss government, to campaign for Labor in the Brisbane seat of Griffith. After losing in 1996, he won in 1998 and skilfully — and cynically, since he was probably Brisbane airport’s most frequent customer — used not-in-my-backyard opposition to aircraft noise to build up his vote at every election thereafter.

Nothing can take away from Rudd the triumph of his ascendancy. Having made the decision to pursue the Lodge, he turned himself into a public performer. In private he is an engaging companion, though he prefers an intellectual argument to a discussion about the weekend football. In public, he made himself blokey enough to garner support among the footy crowd and touchy-feely enough to win the crucial baby vote. He is aware of the ambivalence towards brains in Australian life, and clever enough to look goofily dumb, if required, and thus eminently re-electable as a good bloke.

He claims to be for the average Aussie. But his adult life has not included that experience. As soon as he got his grades in sleepy, sugar town Nambour, he left and joined the elite. He lectures in Mandarin (even in Beijing, a brave call indeed) and likes to do the same in English. He is, in short, by training and preference, a high-level bureaucrat and a policy wonk.

He makes much of the fact that he has no factional base within Labor: he is his own man. But he is not widely liked (though he is respected) and may lack allies when the going gets tough.

As the public is starting to realise, the real Rudd has more in common with Dr Death than the carefully crafted public persona of the Milky Bar Kid.

Ross Fitzgerald June 10, 2009 The Australian