New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was dubbed Lu Kewen by his Chinese teacher at the Australian National University (ANU) almost three decades ago.
Now you'd be drawing a long bow to liken the erudite putonghua speaker to Lu as in infantry, but ke and wen -- for overcome and civilization -- may be more apt because Rudd has shattered Australia's status quo by rolling the political edifice of John Winston Howard both nationally and locally in the former PM's electorate.
Yesterday Rudd, father-in-law to a Chinese Australian man, was sworn in as Australia's 26th Prime Minister after ousting a government that presided over uninterrupted growth for 11 years while slashing unemployment to a 33-year low. The 50-year-old leader turned a 16-seat deficit in Australia's 150-member lower house into a whopping 20-seat majority for his center-left Labor Party, leaving the country's conservative establishment convulsing at the likely prospect of living at least six years in the shadows.
Just like fretting ancients after a solar eclipse, the federal Liberal-National coalition is now purging its ranks and policy ideas after being trounced by a third-way politician with a finger placed firmly on the pulse of the 21st century. "I am determined to use the office of the prime minister to forge a new consensus," Rudd said last week after running on the slogan of "new leadership".
"I want to put aside the battles of the past, the old battle between business and unions, the old battle between growth and the environment, the old and tired battle between federal and state, between public and private." Highly educated yet sufficiently down to earth to converse comfortably with middle Australia, Rudd's ascent to the nation's top post just 11 months after assuming the leadership of the Labor Party has been truly meteoric.
He only won a seat in Parliament two years into former Prime Minister Howard's reign, in 1998, and was promoted to Labor's front bench as foreign affairs spokesman in 2001.
Born to poor share-farmer parents in the sunshine state of Queensland in 1957, Rudd's politics were forged early in life when, at age 11, he lost his father. Afterwards the youngest of four children looked on hopelessly as the family, unable to meet the rent, was forced off the land.
Despite the setback Rudd excelled at a public high school where he was a champion debater and dux - valid Victorian to Americans - after joining the youth wing of the Labor Party. Later, he attended the prestigious Australian National University (not far from the country's Parliament House) and completed an honors degree in Chinese politics and modern social movements, and mastered the language too.
His studies led him to Australia's foreign office and postings in Stockholm and Beijing, where according to one Australian academic he perfected "foreigner's Mandarin".
A devout Christian who draws inspiration from German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer's rebellion against Nazism, Rudd captured Australians' imagination with a progressive policy platform that, despite economic similarities, differentiated Labor from the conservative government led by 68-year-old John Howard.
The media-savvy Rudd, who is married to highly successful businesswoman Therese Rein, underlined his attunement to issues central to the Facebook and Myspace generation, such as climate change and information technology, by courting them in their own domain.
Previously, weekly appearances on a TV morning chat show, in which he wielded a repertoire of light-hearted barbs during jousts with a government minister, had made him a household name. The natural rapport he built up with the electorate through the morning TV spot over five years helped him get through two pre-election crises relatively unblemished.
Rudd's happy-go-lucky public persona was questioned for the first time without taking a serious blow when a Sunday newspaper reported that the then opposition leader was planning with a TV network to host a false ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) dawn service in Vietnam to coincide with commemorations in Australia. The country is three hours behind Vietnam where Australian soldiers fought alongside Americans.
A few months later, as the deadline loomed for Australia's triennial election, the same newspaper ran a story on Rudd's visit to a New York strip club while he was in the US as shadow foreign minister three years ago.
Ironically, approval ratings for the eyeglass-wearing breakfast guest, often described as "bookish", rose after that incident, perhaps as the hurly burly of Labor voters came online.
Championing environmental protection, reconciling with indigenous Australians, complete with a prime ministerial apology, and tinkering with an industrial relations regime favoring business all mark a radical departure from conservative stewardship Down Under.
Although these issues will assuage the electorate's yearning for a fairer, more responsible Australia, they also have the potential to polarize the country and squander Rudd's newly won mandate. If economic fortunes take a turn for the worse and newly selected ministers reprise the coalition's mistake of drifting too far from the ideological center, Rudd will be left without a leg to stand on.
But the well-rounded and moderate Rudd has already stamped himself as a strong leader, disregarding his party's factions to select his cabinet. And his imprimatur on a federal government comes years after he earned the less than flattering sobriquet of "Doctor Death" while slashing public service jobs as a top state bureaucrat.
Rudd's pledge to perpetuate economic conservatism by refraining from reckless spending saw his campaign labeled as "me tooism" by pundits more titillated by polar extremes come election time. But this commentary, like the government he deposed, failed to comprehend the change of direction sought by voters worried about Australia's future after Howard largely fulfilled his economic promise of shaping a "more relaxed and comfortable" nation.
Rudd's plan to fund a comprehensive national high-speed broadband capability by prematurely raiding a future fund set up by the Howard government to, ironically, pay for future infrastructure is a case in point. The policy resonated among Internet-savvy Australians who, unlike conservatives, realized the intrinsic value of lightning-quick broadband to future prosperity.
Rudd also struck a chord with families with reasoned opposition to industrial relations reform rammed through the Australian Senate after Howard gained control of the upper house in 2004. Widespread dissatisfaction at the loss of penalty rates and employee protection, under the cynically named Work Choices legislation, insulated Rudd from government claims that growth would shudder to a halt if and when he rebalanced the employer-employee scales.
Rudd tempered his overtures to disgruntled labor interests by appeasing business with a commitment to budgetary surpluses. He cleverly reinforced his economic claims by refusing to match an 11th-hour A$9-billion splurge on families by Howard and his anointed success, Treasurer Peter Costello, both of whom were already on the political nose after campaigning in 2004 to keep interest rates low only to preside over six consecutive rises.
Rudd also broke with conservative orthodoxy with the promise to withdraw frontline troops from Iraq and sign the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, both an affront to Howard's intensification of Australia's post-September 11 US alliance.
Winning the election just months after he stole the show at the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation forum by speaking with President Hu Jintao in fluent Putonghua, Rudd is now expected naturally to cultivate stronger ties with Asia.
Campaigning also to affect an education revolution focusing heavily on Asian languages, he sounded his intention to increase Australia's burgeoning economic integration with the emerging East Asian region and adhered to a growing desire, particularly among younger generations, to extend prosperity beyond account books to the social fabric.
"You speak fluently in Chinese and you know Chinese inside out," Hu complimented Rudd at APEC before inviting him and his family to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. "You show much interest in the development of Australia's relations with China and I really appreciate that."
By virtue of his academic and diplomatic background, Rudd now occupies a unique position to play a go-between role between East and West. "If I win the election I look forward to taking the relationship between China and Australia to a whole new level," Lu Kewen promised before doing so resoundingly.
(China Daily December 4, 2007)