SYDNEY (Reuters) - At the start of 2010, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was unchallenged in opinion polls, set to easily win a second term at elections this year. Just six months later, he is at risk of being turfed from office. Why?
According to voters the problem is not the government nor its policies, but Rudd himself. Voters no longer know what Rudd stands for, or worse, believe he only stands for himself.
“I liked Kevin and believed him to be a good man who had the best interests of Australia and its people at heart. I now see Kevin as only interested in Kevin,” wrote Ann of Brisbane in northern Queensland state in a recent online commentary.
Page after page of online comments this month label Rudd an incompetent, self-centred politician, ready to dump policies when the going gets tough.
Rudd came to power in 2007 offering generational change.
Voters were sold on Rudd as a decisive politician able to tackle what he called the “great moral challenge of our generation”, climate change, apologise to Australia’s disadvantaged Aborigines for past injustices, and adopt a more humane approach to boatpeople seeking asylum.
He offered voters a leader who would be more inclusive.
Immediately after his election in November 2007, Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol and apologised within months to Aborigines, two symbolic things his conservative predecessor refused to do.
But Rudd has since been unable to pass major legislation, blaming a hostile upper house Senate for blocking his policies. But very few Australian governments have controlled the Senate, though previous governments negotiated passage of major policies.
His critics say policy paralysis is a result of Rudd being more a technocrat than politician, referring major policy decisions to committees, and unable to master the politics of compromise, preferring an autocratic style of leadership.
A Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, Rudd was thrust into the national arena in a presidential-style campaign called “Kevin07” and featuring his boyish looks and blonde hair. Little was seen of Rudd the politician.
“In his pursuit of the prime ministership, much of Rudd’s political persona, therefore, consisted of what people projected onto him, rather than what he projected,” wrote Bernard Keane in an online article ‘So why is Kevin Rudd suddenly the problem?'.
Rudd was sold as either a “lite” version of the conservatives or a progressive politician who captured the national mood for change, allowing both sides of politics to vote for him, Keane said in the online news site (www.crikey.com.au).
“It was enough to allow Rudd to secure the (prime minister‘s) Lodge and craft his own political persona...,” he wrote.
“Rudd’s problem is that he has not yet done that, and he has also managed to upset both progressive and conservative voters at the same time -- leaving him exposed to a catastrophic collapse.”
Those in the political capital Canberra who watched Rudd work for years to win power, say the real Rudd is very different to the public persona.
“He’s seen in that little world of power as a weird guy and a failing prime minister. He puzzles his caucus, frustrates his ministers and irritates the press,” wrote commentator David Marr in a recent biography of Rudd.
Rudd is a devout Christian, who mastered Chinese language, culture and politics at university, and then joined the diplomatic service with postings in Stockholm and Beijing.
He won a seat in parliament in 1988 and the first four words he spoke in parliament made it clear he was ambitious.
“Politics is about power,” he said in his first speech. He ended with an equally bold declaration: “I have no intention of being here for the sake of just being here. Together with my colleagues it is my intention to make a difference”.
In 2006, Rudd was elected Labor leader as the party struggled to win traction with voters. One year later, Rudd brought Labor out of the wilderness after several failed leaderships.
But almost three years after being elected prime minister, voters believe Rudd has made little difference.
Rudd has acknowledged and delivered a speech last week setting out what he does believe in -- nation building.
“I‘m proud to lead a nation-building government grounded in enduring Labor values -- of hope triumphing over fear. A government with a vision for a stronger, fairer Australia in the 21st century,” he said.
The fact that Australia avoided recession during the global financial crisis, thanks to China’s appetite for its minerals and a A$54 billion ($44 billion) stimulus package, protected Rudd from a backlash over job losses or a decline in housing prices.
The turning point came in May when Rudd dropped his climate policy, a carbon emissions trading scheme, having failed to sell the policy. Voters started deserting him.
His announcement in May of a new 40 percent tax on mining “super profits” to boost retirement savings and guarantee a surplus budget by 2012-13 was meant to be the platform for re-election in a poll expected in October.
The rationale was the policy could be presented as taxing the big miners to benefit workers. But Rudd failed to sell it.
“Kevin Rudd has squandered the chance to contest an unlosable election,” said Peter, from the Melbourne suburb of Rosanna, in an online commentary.
(Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Ron Popeski)