“43 percent nasty” read posters dotting the press wing of Australia’s parliament this week under a photo of a beaming Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, pointing readers to a more benign 5 percent-strength beer on sale at a nearby news studio.
The quip drew on a poll finding near one-in-two voters believe the boyish-looking Rudd has a nasty side, echoing other recent surveys showing the centre-left leader’s meteoric popularity is sliding back from a year of levels “with the gods” .
The beer plug perhaps helps explain a bizarre and sudden switch in Rudd’s technocratic speaking style to a bush slang which has left even Australians bewildered as, with his usual obsessiveness, Rudd works hard to reconnect.
Photo: Rudd at the Asia Security Conference in Singapore, May 29, 2009/Reuters
”Fair shake of the sauce bottle, mate . . . It’s chalk and cheese . . . Fair shake of the sauce bottle, mate . . . Well, again, fair shake of the sauce bottle, mate,” the Mandarin-speaking former diplomat said with “ticking clock” monotony in a television interview this week which raised eyebrows nationally.
Compare that to equally incomprehensible, but slang-free, comments by Rudd in Britain last year while meeting foreign leaders over climate change.
“The parallel ideological synergies, vis-a-vis the development opportunity momentum in our own constituencies … that’s where the low-hanging fruit lies,” he said as attending journalists shook their heads.
In the United States, Rudd spoke at the prestigious Brookings Institution of “a complimentarity that could be developed further in the direction of some short of conceptual synthesis”.
Australians can be forgiven for wondering who their prime minister really is, with the question having added resonance amid a swirl of talk that Rudd could call early elections to overcome an upper house Senate currently giving Labor nightmares.
“Will the real Kevin Rudd please stand up,” former conservative opposition leader John Hewson demanded on national television on Friday.
Rudd was a virtual unknown outside the corridors of parliament when he led his Labor Party out of near 12 years in opposition and chronic leadership instability to a sweeping election triumph in November 2007.
Rudd came to lead then-opposition Labor in late 2006 as almost last leadership man standing and since election his popularity has been at record highs. His standing belies the “Dr Death” nickname Rudd earned while cutting a swathe through staff numbers as a top bureaucrat in Queensland state in the early 1990s.
But that began to downshift in April when stories emerged of Rudd’s temper and control obsession — which political insiders have known of for years – boiling over at a air force stewardess he reduced to tears over food choice while on a VIP flight.
Since then Rudd’s popularity, while still strong, has fallen from high 70s to around 58 percent in the closely-watched Newspoll series.
“Rudd’s whole life is an artifice. With his blond hair, round face, round glasses
and wholesome values, he would have us believe he’s the Milky Bar Kid,” senior writer Ross Fitzgerald wrote in the Australian newspaper this month, comparing Labor’s star to a popular children’s chocolate bar character.
“As the public is starting to realise, the real Rudd has more in common with Dr
Death than the carefully-crafted public persona of the Milky Bar Kid,” Fitzgerald said.
“Strewth! There is now a Kevin Rudd for every occasion, and the only version of the Prime Minister that’s missing is one that’s real,” wrote conservative Herald Sun newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt after Rudd’s stream of sauce bottle slang.
Speech experts have blamed Rudd’s chameleon switch on his advisors trying to better reach ordinary voters, particularly swing-vote workers in crucial regional seats and suburban fringes, often ill at ease with Rudd’s natural intellectualism.
But commentators, and the public, see the transition as far from smooth, raising questions on if it could actually harm Rudd in future opinion polling, and ultimately an election.
Others say its shows a country and its leader unsure of their identity, torn between sophisticated city dwellers and a more insular retreat to nationalist symbols and protectionism among voters in regional areas.
“While some of us have drifted off to lattes, designer wear and a taste for cosmopolitan things, others have retreated to the comfort of flags on our utes (SUVs) and Southern Cross tattoos,” the Courier Mail newspaper said.
“In all fairness, it must be hard for any moderately intelligent Australian political leader to hit exactly the right note with his or her public persona in this shifting landscape that is our national character,” the paper said.
So far Rudd is not retreating from the barrage of criticism and has even poked fun at himself and protagonists at a business power lunch in Sydney on Thursday, drawing laughter from those assembled.
Channeling his inner aussie once more, Rudd called on media commentators to give him a “fair crack of the whip” and not “come the raw prawn”.
Does that leave you confused? Then spare a thought for wondering Australians as they await opinion testing of Rudd new style during a bruising parliamentary session over the next fortnight that could yet lead to surprise early elections!