I once defined a politician thus: someone who genuinely and sincerely believes the worst thing that could happen to the country is for him or her to lose his or her seat.

Now Kevin Rudd, as befits an international statesman, has significantly raised the ante: he obviously feels that for Tony Abbott to displace him at the Lodge would bring doom not only to the country, but to the whole world. And he must honestly and sincerely believe his defeat would be a worse disaster than the most terrible predictions for the planet as a consequence of climate change, which he has previously insisted constituted a unarguable case for urgent action.

Rudd was elected in 2007 because he was seen to offer a positive alternative to the time-worn and directionless government of John Howard; it was time for a change and Rudd offered the prospect of moving forward, or at the very least catching up. No one wanted or expected a revolution, but there was a general belief that Rudd would be serious about the contemporary issues Howard had largely ignored — innovation and technology such as broadband, reform of the outdated federal system in health and education and above all climate change.

The global financial crisis disrupted the program somewhat, but it was also the making of Rudd; it reinforced his image as a decisive leader who could be trusted to act when the need arose. Even after the ascension of Abbott at the end of 2009 he appeared unassailable. Now, presumably at the behest of the pollsters, sociologists, minders, spin doctors, psephologists, astrologers and other crazies with whom he has chosen to surround himself, he has tossed it all away. And it has left him with precious little to fall back on.

Rudd’s excuse that Abbott also changed his mind on supporting the ETS and that the Libs welshed on the deal he had negotiated with Malcolm Turnbull is just not good enough. He, not Abbott, is supposed to be the saint, the man of the future, the one you could trust to do the right thing. Again Rudd has been pulled back in to the pack as just another opportunistic politician. He is still a better and more popular one than Abbott, but the gap was undoubtedly narrowing. The idea that the climate change believers should persevere with him simply because he remains, marginally, the lesser of two evils is distinctly unappealing.

In any case the defence simply does not stand up. The constitution is specifically designed to provide a way out of the deadlock: a double dissolution election followed by a joint sitting of both houses of parliament. This was the course triumphantly embraced by Gough Whitlam in 1974 when the polls showed him in a far shakier position than Rudd is in now. Whitlam decided to crash through or crash; Rudd has opted to capitulate and whimper.

In the process he has not only devastated many of his core supporters and annoyed the business community he has been so keen to duchess; he has also provided Abbott with an unanswerable line of attack. If Rudd believes in even half of what he has been saying for the past three years he should stick to his principles and call an election. If he won’t, it shows he has no principles to stick to.

It was Groucho Marx who coined the immortal phrase: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.” The temptation to present Rudd with the appropriate spectacles, nose and moustache set could prove irresistible. And already the cartoonists have started to colour him yellow.

This was the background against which the government released the Henry report and its response, and the reason why the latter was seen as less than overwhelming. With Rudd in full retreat on so many fronts, his tax measures were inevitably judged less be what was in them than by what wasn’t — how many of Henry’s recommendations had he squibbed?

The answer, of course, was most of them, although there was a vague sort of commitment to continuous reform as and when circumstances allow. There is certainly plenty of material left for some enticing election promises, which we will see in the fullness of time.

But while Rudd was reluctant to accept too many of Henry’s proposals immediately, he was dead keen to reject a few of them on the spot. Thus there will be no means test on the family home, no universal land tax, no end to negative gearing, no return to indexing fuel excise, and no tax on alcohol by volume, which would have put up the price of draught beer. An increase in the GST had already been ruled out.

These assurances were obviously felt necessary to prevent Abbott mounting a scare campaign about Rudd’s plans for a second term. But Abbott will simply point to Rudd’s broken 2007 promise about means testing the health insurance rebate as evidence that he is perfectly capable of doing the same next time around. And, of course, the mining companies have already embarked on a scare campaign of their own, implying that taxing their super profits will force them to pack up their Australian projects and take them elsewhere.

This is crude and empty bluff — Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are dragging untold squillions out of this country and the extra tax, which only applies to the most obscenely profitable of their ventures, is hardly a deterrent. And since it will be used for the indisputably worthwhile aims of increasing superannuation, reducing overall company tax and building infrastructure, the miners will gain no sympathy — except, of course, from Abbott, who is utterly opposed to any great big new tax except his own.

By and large Rudd’s initial response to Henry qualifies as good policy and good politics. But because it has come at a time when the government is perceived to be running scared, it will get less credit than it deserves. The taint of political cowardice is a hard one to shake.