Opinion- 29 January 2008


pdf file-available from Australasian Science




Harry Robinson Asks for the Real Kevin Rudd to Stand Up



Who is living in The Lodge now? Harry Potter? A sinophile intellectual? A cold Dr Death? Or just another politician?

Rule out the last for he is not just another anything. Dr Death was one of his nicknames among the Queensland public service when he was reforming and reducing same. The Undertaker was another. A sinologist he was and probably still is. Harry Potter was one of the scornful names given him by the Coalition Government when Mr Howard and colleagues first identified the threat.

They sensed that he had the potential to topple them but they had no inkling of how to deal with him. They tried bullying at question time, tried to link him with West Australia's notorious Brian Burke, tried to smirch him with the scandal of a visit to a Manhattan strip club, tried to outbid him with election spending promises -- they tried everything that a bunch of philistines would think of: they never once attacked him on an intellectual plane.

Rudd, for his part, seemed to have read his opponents clearly. There is an aroma of Zen about the way he held his fire while they destroyed themselves. "Me-too-ism" chanted the shallow media observers. Still Rudd played a passive role.

Has he been a Zen practitioner? Brisbane friends say they have never had evidence of it, which leaves us the explanation that Kevin Rudd is a shrewd assessor of character.

Google is well loaded with information on Mr Rudd, albeit you have to wade through a flood of ALP propaganda. Try the Wikipedia bio and you get a fair sketch of a man determined to succeed as an apparatchik -- chief of staff to Queensland premier Wayne Goss, then director-general of the office of state cabinet. This was bureaucratic power -- and how -- but he took advantage of his position to push the teaching of Asian languages and widen awareness of our northern neighbours. All this while shaking up the state bureaucracy.

It's impressive, but how much initiative came from Goss the boss, how much from Kevin Rudd? We will never know. Friends say he was a mover and shaker but, while they can't put a score-card to it, they do have two pieces of trivia which may be significant. Early in his service to Goss, Rudd was inclined to be forever po-faced and deadly serious. "You' have to learn to smile," said a friend in the PR business. Breakfast TV viewers were among the first to see the Rudd smile. Later, he referred to "Howard" and another adviser said, "Never refer to him that way -- say Mister Howard." He took the point and stuck to Mister Howard from that moment on. Formality and a smile became useful tools for the knockabout rounds of the election campaign.

These two trivial wisps suggest that our man is willing to hear and heed good advice. Do they also suggest that he was even then, while immersed in the administration of a frontier state, aiming to become Prime Minister? Was his career path plain destiny? The question goes begging.

Many questions go begging. Frinstance, how much of the Goss downfall could be ascribed to Rudd? The Goss government fell in 1995 because it failed to read public anger over freeway proposals. Did Kevin warn Wayne? Was Kevin aware of the electoral danger? If so, did he fail to warn Wayne? If he was not aware, why not?

And anyway, what does all this prodding and poking at the Rudd persona matter?

It matters because Kevin Rudd is clearly the prime agenda-setter for his government. (Sorry Julia, your turn may come later, much later.) Higher education and scientific research sorely need to be high on the agenda and so far they've scarcely received a tick. Very likely the PM is taking care of business first, clearing up election promises, surveying budget realities, setting up a true broadband network before telling the public that they need to spend big time on pointy heads who speak in strange tongues.

As to the opening question about who is living in the Lodge, I prefer Harry Potter, boy wizard. Magic might achieve wonderful things. The dry minds of philistines never did.

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.