Photo: © 2010 AAP/ALAN PORRITT
From slumping polls to comments regularly posted on the 7PM Project forums, there's a recurring theme: Australians are feeling disappointed by Kevin Rudd. And with flaming roofs, a forgotten ETS and our apparent willingness to believe anything said by tax-shy foreign mining companies, who can blame them?
But there's an issue lingering in the air like an unpleasant odour, and it's slowly becoming more pungent. It's the suspicion that this grey-suited bureaucrat offering a stream of pollie-waffle in measured tones before the reassuring backdrop of a sandstone church isn't the real Kevin Rudd.
We keep hearing these stories of the furious temper, the potty-mouthed rages, the staffers left burnt out and broken after a tour of duty in the prime ministerial trenches. They’re usually denied, never confirmed … but they keep coming.
This PM has proved as adept as John Howard at not delivering on every promise and the usual election time allegations of 'liar' or 'failure' are being bandied about. But it's not just his achievements that are on the nose. We’re wondering if he's lying about who he is. Because nobody likes a fake.
Compare that to Tony Abbott. Faced with the choice between giving a politically sensible answer and making a complete nong of himself, Tony chooses the nong route without hesitation. Blinking in the TV lights like a kid who still can't believe they've put him in charge of the sandpit, he reels off the first thing that comes into his head. Like: "Sometimes I don't tell the gospel truth."
It must be a nightmare for his advisors. But it’s a refreshing and continually amusing trait. It still hasn't exactly won us over, but it seems to be paying off in an odd way. Would Australians prefer a nong they know to a phony they don’t?
It's a different story when Kev's on the hustings. Before a question has finished, that slightly faraway look crosses his eyes, as he thinks through a list of possible reactions and mentally computes how they'll play out in the polls. There's a forced smile, perhaps a hand on the questioner's arm. If he hasn’t quite sussed it out yet, he'll borrow a moment. Once quite fond of "Can I just say this?", in more recent times he has become obsessed with "Do you know something?"
If Paul Keating or Robert Menzies or Gough Whitlam ever stopped mid-sentence and said "But do you know something?", onlookers would press in, eager to know what quotable morsel of wisdom or invective was about to be launched into political folklore. But in Kev's case, it just has onlookers rolling their eyes thinking "Yes, we know. Blah blah … working families … blah blah.”
It wasn’t always like this. Remember when we decided we liked Kev? It was when he admitted getting smashed and going to a strip club. "I'll probably take a hit in the polls," he murmured. Au contraire, Mr Opposition Leader, that was when we decided you were a top bloke. We didn't know much more about him, but with one stroke he proved he was probably a whole lot more fun to hang out with than John Howard. Even if we disapproved of the act, we liked the honesty.
If Kev wants to win us back, that's what we want more of. And there's a glimmer of hope in today's news. It's his reported comments on China at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. I won't repeat his colourful phrasing here. Let's just say his knowledge of Chinese bedroom habits would appear to be more intimate than we realised.
It was allegedly his reaction to the moment when the entire world was on the brink of a small but crucial step towards global environmental responsibility. Leaders of every kind, from every land, had reached the point where they were prepared to take tough decisions, in the face of enormous pressure from money-hungry corporations and the shrill voices of those who only agree with science when it agrees with them. The world was set to slowly move towards an economy powered in a way that won't leave future generations struggling for breath.
Sadly, the despotic cabal of old men who run China scuttled the whole thing for their own short-term political interests. Without China, the whole effort would amount to nothing but a few good intentions barely worth the paper they were written on. In that moment, Kevin Rudd didn't (allegedly) say something scandalously inappropriate. He (allegedly) said what we were all thinking.
It's a hilarious quote. I'd defend it against suggestions of racism: as far as I’m aware, there is no history of this particular act being attributed to the Chinese, or any ethnic group. It's just something you'd call someone who has made you very, very angry. It puts Bob Hawke’s "silly old bugger" in the shade.
Imagine if Kevin announced it at the conference lectern, instead of (allegedly) behind closed doors. Sure, we might be down a trading partner, but he’d be king of the world! The gathered delegates would acclaim him – and then go nuts when he repeated it in Chinese. His popularity at home would be through the roof. He’d be quoted on T-shirts and interviewed by Letterman. And do you know something? He’d love it.
And so would we all! There he’d be, first thing on a Sunday morning, telling Paul Bongiorno where to go. Swearing at Tony Abbott during an election debate, then swearing at the Worm for not rising fast enough. And we’d finally have a politician with the vocabulary to tell Kerri-Anne what she could do with her Macarena.
Kevin Rudd is best when he's passionate. We saw it in the health debate when he was all over Tony, who, to be fair, was still pinching himself that he was even there. If passion brings out the odd naughty word, then I say bring it on. At this stage of the game, he’s got nothing to lose.
So here's the deal, Kev. Drop the mask. Stop it with the "Do you know something? I've just been to church again" stuff.
And start telling us what you really think.