Resurgent Rudd the man Canberra loves to hate

Kevin Rudd keeps saying he's no Mother Teresa. After knocking off Kim Beazley years ago, Rudd asked us not to compare him to the little saint of Calcutta. "As I keep saying, I'm no Mother Teresa. I've been in politics in one way or another for nearly 20 years and it's a difficult and bloody business."

Now he's modestly denying any comparison with the winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize when it comes to the question of the moment: has this man addressed the deep character flaws that led to his chaotic handling of the party, the cabinet and the office of prime minister? Has Rudd changed?

He's only claiming significant improvement. On Sky TV the other night, he told David Speers he's given the matter a lot of thought, has resolved to delegate more and consult more, and believes he's better for it. "But I don't think I could claim to be Mother Teresa at this stage, mate."

Not for a moment since Rudd appeared in Canberra in 1998 have his colleagues thought he was a candidate for beatification. Few ever warmed to him. They saw a politician just like them, only more ambitious and more determined. And it drove them to distraction that the public saw something else: someone who could be trusted because he was bright and good.

With characteristic cruelty, Mark Latham once told Rudd to his face that his rise through the Labor ranks was due solely to his popularity with "people who have never actually met him". If Rudd had only ever been seen through Canberra's eyes, he would never have climbed to the top.

But so busy are the big political machines denouncing Rudd once again that they have overlooked the meaning of his resurgent popularity: Australians warm far more to a man like him than they do to the furious apparatchiks that now lead the government and opposition. That Rudd is back in contention tells us so much about ourselves. Nerd leaders are fine by Australians. We like experts. We like ideas. Thoughtful is appealing. We respect men and women at the top who have some sort of interior life. And, though I don't suggest this reflects much credit on us as a nation, Australians like leaders to sound like Rudd. He has the voice.

But is he what people think he is? Rudd mastered every step on the way to his 2007 election victory: he taught himself to be a politician, he cultivated the press, he overcame the lingering distaste of caucus and he worked the numbers to put together his winning alliance with Gillard.

But he didn't learn to be a prime minister. Something deep in Rudd made him extremely reluctant to share power. He saw it as his, flowing from his personal popularity. As he manoeuvred to stay aloft in the polls, his political judgment faltered. His office was chaos. His links to the party snapped.

He told Speers the other night: "Speak to my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs or in my own office and elsewhere, other foreign ministerial colleagues, they'll give you a judgment as to whether things have changed or not."

A few calls by the Herald suggest his office is more convivial than it was when he was running the country. It's kind of culty in there: they live and breath Kevin. The hours aren't as long or the demands as insane, but then he's not running the whole show these days, only the country's foreign policy.

And his relations with his department? Less has changed here. He still makes big demands of public servants: reports are called for at 5am and, it seems to their exhausted authors, never read. The same question hovers over the operation that hovered over Prime Minister Rudd's office: what's the focus here? What is it apart from Rudd?

With the polls running in his favour and Labor deeply fearful for its future, it seems the only hurdle to Rudd's return to office is the old suspicion of Canberra, the verdict of those who have lived and worked with him, those who know a man the public never sees.

David Marr wrote the Walkley-award winning Quarterly Essay ''Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd'' in June 2010.

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