Kevin Rudd: In Australia, the rise of a political nerd

Earnest, bookish, and nerdy, Labor Party chief Kevin Rudd is poised to lead Australia.

Of the stories circulating about Kevin Rudd, the boyish, bookish head of Australia's Labor Party and the man tipped to become the next prime minister, one of the most popular concerns a party back in 1996, around the time when Mr. Rudd was trying to break into federal politics.

"There was a barbecue, with people standing around, talking about rugby. Kevin comes along and chirps up with something about how interesting it will be when China engages in world trade," says Nicholas Stuart, a Canberra journalist whose unauthorized biography of the politician was published in June. "All of a sudden, people discovered their glasses needed refilling. He had that ability to clear a room."

Since then, China has engaged in world trade and Rudd managed to make his way onto the federal political scene. Both have been resounding successes – and now the former diplomat (who speaks fluent Mandarin) is poised to unseat Australia's second-longest-serving leader. And on the international stage, he may have already outshone him: At the recent APEC summit in Sydney, Howard stood by as Rudd chatted comfortably in Chinese with President Hu Jintao.

A Rudd government may substantially alter Australia's relations with the rest of the world. Polls show that Australian federal elections, due to be held within weeks, will give voice to an electorate that has grown disenchanted with Prime Minister John Howard's staunch support for the war in Iraq, his slowness in acting on climate change, and the tough new industrial relations reforms he has introduced.

By contrast, since becoming Labor's leader last December, Rudd has pledged to withdraw Australia's numerically small, but politically significant, contingent of troops from Iraq. And he has promised to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, an action that would leave the United States even more isolated among developed countries in its refusal to ratify the treaty.

Where once he looked unassailable, Prime Minister Howard's grip on power now looks increasingly frail.

Howard may yet manage to rally his troops, but many Australians are preparing for a Rudd government by Christmas. An election date has yet to be announced, but it will almost certainly be called before early December.

The latest opinion poll this week gives Labor a 55 to 45 percent lead over the government. It also showed that Rudd's personal approval rating had risen to 67 percent, while Howard's remains steady at 50 percent.

Howard has delivered more than a decade of economic prosperity to Australia, but many voters have become bored with him. He's been appearing on their evening television screens since 1996. He is 68, and recently became a grandfather. To some commentators, he has the air of yesterday's man.

Is Australia ready for Kevin?

Part of Rudd's appeal lies in his novelty. He is 50, but looks younger. His round face, spectacles, and shock of silver hair have earned him the nicknames Harry Potter, Tintin, and the Milky Bar Kid. For his deep Christian faith and devotion to family values, the father of three has been dubbed St. Kevin.

Nor has he escaped the sharp-tongued wit of Australia's best known cross-dressing comedian. "Do we want a prime minister who looks like a dentist?" Dame Edna Everage, aka comedian Barry Humphries, asked of the Labor leader in a recent stage show. "Is Australia ready for a leader named Kevin?"

Even as his popularity improves, Rudd is nevertheless seen as a bit of a nerd. Nevertheless, on the advice of his closest confidantes, Rudd has worked hard to shed his image as a brainy technocrat.

"It's been a conscious effort to make himself more of an Everyman," says Mr. Stuart. "He can mix it with the typically ocker [working-class] bloke if he has to. Australians see a genuine attempt to engage with ordinary people."

But despite the boyish monikers, Rudd is deadly serious, and his reputation as an intellectual is not a bad thing, says Nick Economou, a political scientist from Monash University in Melbourne.

"At the end of the day, Australians want their governments to be good governments," he says. "He's bright, capable, and conservative. He was never a unionist and he is no friend of the unions – in fact, I think he'll have some very tense relations with them. He comes across as someone who is dependable and trustworthy."

Rudd, who spent most of his career as a member of Australia's foreign service, has vowed to withdraw the country's 550 combat troops from Iraq but to leave in place the remaining 1,000 other personnel – including sailors patrolling the Persian Gulf, military training teams, and Embassy protection guards in Baghdad – who work in and around the Gulf region.

Australia has yet to suffer a single combat casualty in Iraq, but the war is not popular at home. Many Australians feel that Howard's support for his friend, President George Bush, has been too slavish and sycophantic.

Bigger role in Australia's backyard

His voracious reading had convinced him that China was the power of the future, so in 1976 he enrolled in a degree in Chinese language and history at the Australian National University in Canberra.

After graduating with first class honors, Rudd joined the Australian diplomatic service, serving in the early 1980s in Sweden before being sent to Beijing with his young wife Therese, a posting he loved.

As a committed Sinophile, analysts say Rudd is likely to strengthen the already close economic and diplomatic ties between Canberra and Beijing, while trying to maintain the all-important Anzus alliance that obligates the US, New Zealand, and Australia to work together on security concerns in the Pacific.

"I think he'd carve out a more independent world role," says Stuart. "He has deep and intimate links with America but he also wants to get along very well with China. He'll resist joining any kind of anti-China quadripartite alliance with the US, Japan, and India, of the sort that Dick Cheney is pushing for. But he'd make behind-the-scenes representations about human rights abuses; he's particularly concerned about the repression of Christians."

Still, Rudd is no pacifist – he has said he would consider increasing Australia's deployment to Afghanistan, where he believes the true fight against terrorism lies. He is also likely to continue Australia's tough interventionist stance in the immediate neighborhood, maintaining troops in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Labor has not won a federal election since 1993. If he wins this one, Rudd will be anxious to continue the 14-year run of economic growth that has made Australians wealthier than ever before.

"It will be a case of 'steady as she goes,' "says Dr. Economou. "He may wind back some of the government's industrial relations reforms, but there won't be a dramatic change."

So is Australia ready for a leader named Kevin? If the opinion polls of the last few weeks are anything to go by, the answer appears to be a resounding "yes."

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