Rocky versus the finger crusher

2013-06-17 05.23.40 pmNICK CATER

from The Sunday Times, August 11, 2013


A HIGH-FIVE from the prime minister gave five-year-old Joseph Kim his brief moment of fame last Wednesday as the travelling election circus stopped briefly in the Sydney suburb of North Ryde.

Kevin Rudd, with an eye to evening bulletins, gripped the boy’s fingers until he was satisfied the shot was in the can.

The scene was captured from another angle by an amateur and posted online, showing Kim’s grimace as Rudd released his grip. “Ouch!” the boy said, nursing his sore hand.

Six years after he led Labor back into government, Rudd remains an enigma to the nation he aspires to represent.

Is he a good-hearted Uncle Kevin who poses for happy snaps with children or a self-obsessed political creep who, in a former life as a senior public servant in Queensland, was nicknamed “Dr Death”?

The loathing for Rudd within his own party is palpable. His colleagues found him impossible to work with towards the end of his first term and in June 2010 took the extraordinary step of deposing a sitting prime minister.

Six weeks ago, with his successor Julia Gillard looking hopelessly unelectable, they reversed their decision, pledging their loyalty to Rudd through gritted teeth.

Mark Latham, a former party leader, called him a “once-in-a-century egomaniac”, declaring: “You’re getting into the realm of evil here with Rudd.”

Rudd’s return has given Labor a sugar hit in the polls. But as the campaign got under way last week for the election on September 7 — in which he will struggle to beat Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition — the mistakes of his first term have begun to haunt him.

Rudd’s easing of the detention rule for asylum seekers in 2008 was followed by an armada of unseaworthy boats run by sophisticated syndicates operating from Indonesia.

Last week the number of arrivals reached 50,000; more than 1,000 have drowned.

Yesterday it emerged that the navy has ordered specialised equipment to fish bodies out of the Indian Ocean. Four more boats have arrived in the past three days.

On Thursday Rudd attempted to kick-start the campaign in his home state of Queensland by recruiting Peter Beattie, a popular former state premier, to contest a marginal Brisbane seat.

Beattie was obliged to spend much of the press conference repudiating his earlier claims that Rudd had an ego “bigger than the party” and should never again be made prime minister.

Rudd described it as “water off a duck’s back”, but he was noticeably stung earlier in the week when Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph published a front- page editorial headlined “Kick this mob out”.

He alleged that Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp — the ultimate owner of the newspaper and of The Sunday Times — was orchestrating a vendetta run by Col Allan, the Australian-born editor-in-chief of the New York Post, who is in Sydney on a managerial assignment. Rudd cited a rumour — printed in a newspaper owned by the rival Fairfax Media group — that Murdoch was trying to protect his stake in the Foxtel pay-television network from competition on the government-owned National Broadband Network (NBN).

The NBN — Labor’s ambitious plan to link every home across Australia by ultra-fast fibre-optic cable — has become a symbol of the party’s waste and mismanagement that has eaten up the proceeds of the nation’s biggest mining boom.

After four years just 2% of the network has been completed and the final cost has been put at more than £50bn.

The Australian economy should be thriving, but with the debt and deficit rising and the unemployment rate edging towards 6%, commentators are asking what went wrong.

In contrast to Rudd, Abbott — an athletic former amateur boxer who trained as a Catholic priest — has been running a low-key, low-risk campaign, promising to restore sanity and stability to government.

“The election campaign we’re having is not about anyone’s ego,” he said on Friday. “It’s not about me, it’s not about Kevin Rudd, it’s not about celebrity.”

After narrowly losing to Gillard in 2010, Abbott remains the favourite to win next month. A poll by Nielsen published yesterday put his coalition ahead at 52%, with Labor on 48%, although Rudd leads as the preferred prime minister by 50% to 42%.

Abbott has staked his political future on a promise to stop asylum seekers’ boats, scrap the government’s unpopular carbon emissions tax and bring the budget back to surplus.

Failure to beat Rudd could destroy his political career, however, and Dr Death may claim yet another victim.