Given the way he works his staff and his perfectionism, it’s no surprise the Prime Minister behaved objectionably toward a flight attendant who somehow failed to provide what he wanted. Rudd sets notoriously high standards not just for himself but everyone around him. However, that doesn’t excuse rudeness. That he apologised at the time becomes him. That it happened in the first place, though, is revealing of what sort of person he is.

On the other hand, those of us who have managed staff less than perfectly ourselves, or have ever treated someone in the service industry shabbily, are probably in no position to pass judgement.

But that this is a leading story in the aftermath of one of the most important meetings in recent history, to the extent of being the subject of questions to Rudd after the G20 meeting, is indicative of the Australian media’s capacity to focus on the trivial. Kudos to The Australian, for giving the story appropriate weight online — reporting it, but not obsessing over it or seeing it as a higher priority than what’s going on in the real world.

And if the Prime Minister’s chief spinner Lachlan Harris denied the story when initially put to him by Steve Lewis, it’s a remarkable act of self-directed stupidity.

What’s fascinating, however, has been the public reaction. A politician — especially a senior one — abusing a subordinate, especially a low-ranking one, could ordinarily expect no sympathy whatsoever. It’s one step short of the ultimate sin of declaring “don’t you know who I am”. When I discussed it with 2HD’s Luke Grant this morning, he immediately noted that people on talkback had been making excuses for Rudd or emphasising that he had apologised, as if Rudd can do no wrong at the moment.

We got Media Monitors to sample the reaction and, while there was considerable criticism, there were a lot of defenders of Rudd on talkback. Some said Rudd’s behaviour was understandable — some even applauded him — and complained about service levels in general, or said he shouldn’t have apologised. Others suggested the abused woman should get over it, or get a different job, should be able to take abuse and would have heard worse things in training, or that any CEO would have hit the roof if they’d been treated the way Rudd was treated. Others had a go at the media.

Empathy for politicians from the public is invariably scarce, and yet here are talkback callers — older and more conservative than most voters — putting themselves in Rudd’s position and supporting his behaviour. The reaction of many to the story was to think of times when they’ve got poor service and wish they could have reacted in the same way as he did. This is Rudd’s scarily effective communication and image-shaping skills paying off.

Even John Howard at his most popular — and he never reached the Hawkeian heights that Rudd has attained — wouldn’t have got away with abusing a hostie. But voters feel they know, trust and understand Rudd, that even if he isn’t an ordinary bloke, he shares the values of ordinary Australians and views the world in the same way as they do.

It will fade, over time; voters will wise up to how he does it, and grow bored with him, as they did with Howard, and more quickly, too. But at the moment Kevin Rudd is a scarily popular man.

Peter Fray

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