A pretty determined bastard

A studious Christian who speaks fluent Mandarin is an unlikely political hero. But Kevin Rudd looks

When Margaret Thatcher was taking on the miners, Australia's Labor prime minister Bob Hawke was forging a decade-long compact with the unions and industry. While George Bush Sr was fighting Saddam Hussein, Paul Keating was planning national competition and welfare-to-work policies that became international models. At the start of the 1990s, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown visited Australia and saw how a market-friendly, mildly redistributive social democracy could dominate the political centre ground.

Yet, for the past decade, the Australian Labor Party has been in the wilderness. John Howard, the 68-year-old Liberal prime minister, has created a devastatingly effective combination of economic liberalisation, social conservatism and noisy nationalism. Australia has enjoyed 16 consecutive years of economic growth, at among the highest rates in the OECD. In the country's federal system, every state and territory government in Australia at present is held by Labor. But nationally, Howard, dismissed by the left before and after his 1996 victory, came to appear invincible. Now that may be changing.

By the end of this year, there has to be an election, and Howard has hit trouble. The worst drought for a century has strained the economy and contributed to rocketing public concern about climate change. Until this year, Howard steadfastly refused to endorse the Kyoto Protocol or recognise the scientific consensus on climate. His recent industrial relations reforms have also been deeply unpopular, heightening a sense of insecurity among key groups of voters carrying record personal debt.

At the end of last year, Kevin Rudd wrested the Labor leadership from Kim Beazley, an honourable but floundering veteran of the Hawke-Keating years. Rudd, 49, won by teaming up with 45-year-old Julia Gillard, a rising star of the left in Victoria and now deputy leader. Rudd is the party's fourth leader in a decade. When he challenged Beazley, it was widely assumed that the coming 2007 election was already lost for Labor. Since the beginning of this year, the party has maintained a landslide lead in the polls.

Rudd has been through a political maelstrom, fighting to control Labor's and the media's pre-election agenda. He has had the kitchen sink thrown at him by a government desperate to regain the initiative. He has been attacked on his character, honesty, economic credentials and political inexperience. But the polls stubbornly refuse to shift, and the Australian media and establishment are now preparing for a sea change.

Born to share-farmer parents in rural Queensland, in the subtropical north-east of Australia, Rudd is married to Therese Rein. They met at university and have three children. Rein has combined parenting and support for her husband with founding and running a highly successful group of companies providing rehabilitation services to the long-term unemployed.

Rudd's early life was deeply marked by his father's death after a road accident, and the subsequent economic insecurity faced by his family. The young man who emerged acquired a level of personal discipline and a seriousness of purpose that have given him extraordinary momentum. On achieving the party leadership, he described himself as a "pretty determined bastard". Since then, he has demonstrated just how determined. He is, in many ways, an unlikely Labor figure, coming neither from the world of unions and labour law nor from the factional heartlands of New South Wales and Victoria. He has been characterised as a nerd. He is slight, studious and intense. One newspaper cartoonist draws him as Tintin, the Belgian comic-book hero.

Self-deprecating

In a country where politics is often viewed as a blood sport, full of vicious parliamentary exchange, his trademark approach might seem out of place. In April, he opened his speech to Labor's national conference with: "I'm Kevin. I'm from Queensland. I'm here to help."

Rudd has learned to use his own identity, including self-deprecation, to project a distinctive quality to voters. He is a centrist and a social conservative and after years spent carefully studying Howard's tactics and the success of others, including new Labour, he has built an approach that is neutralising the government's usual lines of attack.

He has carefully narrowed party differences on national security and the economy, using a "hit-and-run" approach to policy and communication, connecting with underlying public anxieties about Australia's place in the sun by focusing on declining productivity growth, petrol prices and mortgage stress. In doing so, he has paved a road for transition to a set of long-term challenges that Australians know have to be tackled: China, climate change, and prosperity beyond the long mining-fuelled boom.

Federal politics is Rudd's third career. After excelling at high school, he studied Chinese at the Australian National University and joined the department of foreign affairs and trade, where he was posted to Stockholm and Beijing. Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin, and has assiduously built friendships in China. If he becomes prime minister, he will be the first western leader with such a level of understanding.

In a speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington in April this year, he argued that "we in Australia and the United States are now at a critical juncture on how best to shape the future characteristics of the regional and inter national order". During his American trip, Rudd made a ritual visit to Rupert Murdoch, who showed his enthusiasm for the challenger.

Rudd has a further layer of professional identity: in the late 1980s, rather than climbing to the top of the embassy ladder, he became chief of staff to Wayne Goss, then campaigning to become Labor premier of Queensland by toppling a 32-year-old country conservative regime. After Goss's bruising victory, Rudd transferred to become, at the age of 35, director general of the New South Wales department of premier and cabinet, a pivotal role in Australian state governments. The experience helped convince him to enter federal politics, and in 1998 he won the Queensland seat of Griffith at the second attempt.

This combination of deep international and strategic knowledge and hard-edged public management experience puts Rudd closer to Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy than to Tony Blair at the start of his premiership.

Work ethic

Rudd regularly cites Christian faith as a source of political motivation. In an essay, he described the German pacifist and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis in 1945, as "the man I admire most in the history of the 20th century".

He went on to attack the conflation of Christianity with conservatism in contemporary politics, and argues that a core, continuing principle "should be that Christianity . . . must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed". While he does not easily embrace the language of the left, there is no doubt that he sees the role of the government in terms of social justice. His main policy emphasis is, not surprisingly, on education.

Rudd has plenty of critics. His intellectual capacity and ambition have been experienced by some as arrogance, and his ferocious work ethic can translate into extreme demands on others. In a recent interview, he said: "I've never worked in a bureaucratic or political environment when it hasn't been really tough. I've never arrived in a show where everything's up and running . . . It's always hard. So you get bred hard."

This intensity and determination help explain why he has got this far. But Rudd has to build a culture that can be sustained in government. His natural tendency to punch home the advantage will be tested in the second half of the year, as the Liberals go all out to protect Howard's legacy and new-found supporters swarm around Labor.

The election is far from won. Howard has come from behind before, and the electoral geo graphy is difficult for Labor. But there is a scent of change in the air.

Australia is the industrialised nation most exposed to climate change, and most sensitive to China's rise. It must work out how to sustain prosperity for a more diverse population, on a more fragile planet, in a region that will shape the 21st century.

The pressure is on Kevin Rudd.

Tom Bentley is a director at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government

Wizards of Oz

Illustrious sons and daughters

Rupert Murdoch (b 1931 in Melbourne) is the most powerful media executive in the world, controlling an empire that started when he inherited the Adelaide News. His UK ownership of the Sun is widely held to have helped Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to power.

Kylie Minogue (b 1968, left) had a role in the Aussie soap opera Neighbours that launched a stellar pop career ("I Should Be So Lucky") lasting decades. After a battle with cancer, she made a triumphant live concert return last year.

Peter Singer (b 1946), is a philosopher who intellectually underpins the animal liberation movement.

Joan Sutherland (b 1926, Sydney) is one of the greatest sopranos ever. She was hailed around the world as "the voice of the 20th century".

Barry Humphries (b 1934) is a comedian and satirist more often seen as his stage and TV alter egos Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson.

Howard Florey (1898-1968) won a Nobel Prize for his development of penicillin. A peer and the first Australian president of the Royal Society of Medicine, Florey appears on the A$50 note.

Clive James (b 1939) is a television critic and broadcaster with a voice as well known as the Queen's. A former president of Cambridge Footlights, he describes himself as a member of the "proletarian left".

Nicole Kidman (b 1967) grew up in Sydney to become the world's highest-paid actress, starring in Moulin Rouge, Eyes Wide Shut and The Hours (for which she won an Oscar). A Companion of the Order of Australia, its highest civilian honour.

Cate Blanchett (b 1969) is an award-winning actress, acclaimed since her first high-profile role in Elizabeth. Listed in 2007 among Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

Shane Warne (b 1969, left) is a cricketing legend, raising eyebrows on and off the field. One of Wisden's top five cricketers of the 20th century.

Germaine Greer (b 1939) is a writer and academic. Her 1970 feminist tract The Female Eunuch was hugely influential. Has strong views on everything from underwear to art.

Peter Carey (b 1943, in Victoria) is now living in New York. He has twice won the Booker Prize, in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang.