CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
How Kevin Rudd confounds his critics
, September 1, 2007
Kevin Rudd continues to be given the benefit of the doubt by the Australian public.When momentum is running in their favour, some political leaders seem to have the knack of acquiring a "teflon" character.
The term is said to have been first used by United States Democrat politician Pat Schroeder to describe the media's treatment of President Ronald Reagan and his ability to skate over controversy.
"He's just like a Teflon frying-pan: Nothing sticks to him," the Colorado congresswoman famously said.
Since then, the term has entered the political lexicon and has been used to describe everyone from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Paul Keating.
Based on current polling, Kevin Rudd appears to have been given a similar degree of latitude by the Australian public, or at least the benefit of the doubt after a string of controversies.Latest exposé
Mr Rudd has managed to step through the latest exposé - his visit to a New York strip club while on an Australian taxpayer-funded trip to the United Nations four years ago.
Yet it adds to questions about Mr Rudd's character.
When reports of the strip club visit surfaced, the Labor leader quickly explained that it was a one-off misdemeanour and a mistake for which he took full responsibility.
Mr Rudd said he was so drunk on the night that he had no memory of what happened inside the club, and that he rang his wife in Brisbane the next day to explain and apologise for his behaviour.
Mr Rudd said alcohol had fuelled the indiscretion, but said it had been one of just two occasions he had been drunk in his adult life.
A cynic might say the claim of being blind drunk was a convenient excuse for Mr Rudd not to have to answer questions about the night in question.
But in any case, letters to the editor, calls to talk-back radio and immediate polls suggest the voting public was not too fussed about Mr Rudd's night on the tiles in New York city.
For much of the past year, the media and the Government have attempted to take a harder and closer look at the man who has put himself up as Australia's alternative prime minister.
This probing has included asking some serious and some not-so-serious questions about Mr Rudd's character and background.
So far nothing has stuck.
Yet the fact is, as far as the Australian and even the Queensland public are concerned, Mr Rudd was a virtual unknown until this year.
He'd spent a relatively short time in Parliament (just nine years), and in more recent times had bobbed up frequently on television to discuss foreign affairs matters.
Yet Mr Rudd's media machine has cleverly constructed an image of the MP as a fresh-faced, earnest, squeaky-clean, straight-laced Christian type of politician who has managed to shut out the entire left wing of the Labor Party and militant union types to boot.
At his first media conference Mr Rudd pledged to be an "alternative, not an echo", but has proceeded to turn exactly that - Mr Howard's Little Mr Echo.
He has escaped serious policy scrutiny because he has adopted the tactic of agreeing with everything Mr Howard proposes.
"My name is Kevin, I'm from Queensland and I'm here to help," is how he introduced himself to a rather bemused Labor national conference in Sydney in April.
At that stage Labor was enjoying the Rudd honeymoon, but wondered how long it could last.
Mr Rudd has surprised his most strident critics inside Labor.
Since winning the leadership, Mr Rudd has been accused of gilding the lily over his "log-cabin-to-White-House" version of his childhood poverty, of trying to switch the Anzac Day dawn service to suit peak morning television ratings, and of back-flipping on Australia's involvement in Iraq.
It is often overlooked that, as Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Mr Rudd was originally even more vociferous than Prime Minister John Howard in advocating US-led military action to destroy Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction".Trying to shame Government
Now he wants to withdraw Australia's troops, and tries to shame the Government about its involvement.
In May it was revealed that a company owned by Mr Rudd's wife Thérèse Rein (who had been a big beneficiary of the Federal Government's privatised Job Network) had been using common law contracts to strip workers of penalty rates, overtime and other benefits in return for minuscule pay increases.
This appeared to undercut both Labor's and the ACTU's argument that the Howard Government's Work Choices was being used to do the same thing.
Nevertheless, Mr Rudd's popularity remains high - confounding the Government and Labor hardheads alike.
Unlike the United States, Australia is not a puritanical nation, but Australians do have a healthy scepticism of their politicians.
Mr Rudd's visit to a strip club won't lose him votes on the moral question, but it will add to the seeds of doubt with some voters about who he really is.