CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Can Kevin Rudd handle the heat?
, March 17, 2007
The test for Mr Rudd is whether the fallout from the Brian Burke affair has toughened him as a politician.Details of the first serious attack on Labor leader Kevin Rudd over the Brian Burke affair will be largely forgotten by the time the federal election comes around in October or November.
But the altered perceptions about Mr Rudd will not.
This is the key to the sometimes over-the-top and arguably disproportionate attacks on Mr Rudd by the Prime Minister John Howard, Treasurer Peter Costello and Health Minister Tony Abbott.
The Liberals are beginning to mount a concerted attack on Mr Rudd, both in the Parliament and outside.
While the public like the look of Mr Rudd and are clearly listening to him in a way they never did with Kim Beazley, the Liberals believe the real Mr Rudd is hollow and shallow. But they need time to expose his weaknesses.
Mr Rudd is also playing a game similar to that played by Mr Howard in the lead-up to the 1996 election.Holding back
The then Opposition Leader adopted a clever "small target" strategy, holding back on major policies and making only his landmark "Headland Speeches" which broadly outlined the party's philosophies on various areas of policy.
But while Mr Howard was a well-known and well-understood politician, Mr Rudd is not, and the Liberals cannot afford to let Mr Rudd employ the same route to the Lodge.
The three meetings Mr Rudd agreed to have with the disgraced ex-Premier were in fact relatively minor errors of judgment.
A Perth breakfast, a coffee and a larger dinner gathering hosted by Mr Burke, were three minor strikes against a man who intends to run the country.
They were certainly not serious enough for voters to declare Mr Rudd unfit for office.
There are unlikely to be any Liberal Party ads linking Mr Rudd with the convicted fraudster and ex-premier.
There is no crime against associating with a person with a criminal conviction, and there would not be a politician in the country, including Mr Howard, who could honestly claim they have not met with many in their careers.
But the affair will serve as a reminder in the back of voters' minds that there could be doubts about the 49-year-old Queenslander's judgment and political maturity.
The dinner event - where Mr Rudd made a speech on China and answered questions from 30 or so attendees, including business, union and political figures - was the most serious of the three meetings.
No matter what Mr Rudd claims about the dinner being accidental, it was clearly intended by Mr Burke as a means of introducing him to some of WA's movers and shakers.
Presumably, as we are led to believe, no promises were made to Mr Burke for garnering support for Mr Rudd's leadership bid.
In fact, Mr Rudd appears to have pulled back from Mr Burke's attempts to forge a stronger relationship, refusing to attend a fourth more public dinner attended by journalists.
The most intriguing aspect of the Rudd-Burke affair has been Mr Rudd's reaction after a week of sustained media interest in the story.
The new Labor leader appears to have been quite shaken and demoralised by the attacks, and was shrill in his response at times, calling the PM to have an early election.
It has been a tough week for Mr Rudd, but the pressures of this skirmish are nothing compared to the crucible of an election campaign.
Mark Latham imploded when the pressures got too much for him in 2004.
The test for Mr Rudd is whether the Burke affair has toughened him as a politician or whether it has exposed a vulnerable side.
The Liberals know they are in trouble and face the real prospect of losing the election.
But they also know the Australian electorate will not hand over the running of the country to a man who cannot take the heat.