I had always been somewhat ambivalent about Rudd – as, it seemed, had the bulk of the population. While polls showed that only 10 per cent actively disliked him (an all-time low, his supporters shrilled gleefully), 49 per cent had no opinion of any kind. In other words, the man was virtually unknown less than a year before he would ask the people to elect him as their head of government. This was not a good start.

Nor was what was known of him particularly encouraging. A former Queensland government apparatchik, he was one of Kim Beazley’s backing chorus of roosters, as Mark Latham called them. Indeed, Latham had been particularly harsh on Rudd in his notorious diary, describing him as personally untrustworthy and an American lackey. Latham believed that Heavy Kevvie, as he had derisively christened his foreign affairs spokesman, was barely fit to oversee Labor’s Pacific Islands policy, let alone to take on the top job. This view was widely shared by the anti-Beazley forces, led by Simon Crean and Julia Gillard – now, incredibly, in harness with Rudd, a man she would previously have moved suburbs to avoid. It was true that through 2006 Rudd had progressively distanced himself from the other roosters (Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan and Steve Conroy) and marked out a more independent path, in preparation, it now appeared, for his tilt at the leadership. But for many, this only made his coup against Beazley more distasteful, particularly as it took an alliance with his former enemies to bring it off.

On the policy side, no one denied Rudd’s competence in his own field; in fact, he was almost too good at it. The fact that he had been a professional diplomat – speaking Mandarin Chinese, among other languages – suggested interests far more esoteric than those of the ordinary voter. Then there was his Christianity. Like Howard, he was nominally a middle-of-the-road Anglican, although he had descended to that position from the heights of Roman Catholicism, while Howard had risen to it from the depths of Methodism. But unlike Howard, Rudd paraded his beliefs more openly than some of his colleagues felt was decent. The parallel was less with the prime minister than with his flaky health minister, Tony Abbott, known variously as the Mad Monk and Captain Catholic. In blunt terms, Rudd was not what would conventionally be seen as leadership material, at least in the Australian tradition. The view in the Billinudgel was that he was a wussy, smart-ar-e God-botherer, and Howard would eat him alive. One of my lefty friends had sworn he could never vote for a Labor Party led by Rudd: it would make him feel smarmy.

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And yet, and yet…

Tomorrow: In 2007 the stakes were higher than ever, because of WorkChoices… 

This is an extract from Poll Dancing: The Story of the 2007 Election by Mungo MacCallum, Black Inc. RRP $24.95 — www.blackincbooks.com.