BRISBANE (Reuters) - Australia’s new Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, has promised generational change and to bury past battles between unions and business and economic growth and the environment.
Rudd says he will immediately sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and has pledged to withdraw combat troops from the Iraq war, which has labeled a disaster, dumping long-held positions held by outgoing conservative leader John Howard.
“It is necessary for us to embrace the future as a nation united, forged with a common future,” said Rudd after a victory on Saturday in elections, ending 11 years of conservative rule.
“I want to put aside the old battles of the past, the old battles between business and unions, the old battles between growth and the environment...,” he said. “It’s time for a new chapter in our nation’s history to begin.”
Rudd pinned Labor’s revival hopes on heartland family promises to improve hospitals and education, turning schools into “digital” classrooms with computers for every student and to scrap controversial labor laws.
Like Britain’s Tony Blair, Rudd has overturned Labor’s tax-and-spend past, matching conservative targets to keep the budget in surplus at 1 percent of GDP and deliver tax cuts.
And while he promised to maintain Australia’s close alliance with the United States, which he said on Saturday was a “great friend and ally”, he will seek a more independent foreign policy. He is expected to forge closer links with China.
Australians are still getting to know Rudd, 50, a politician with strong Christian morals who describes himself as an economic conservative, who has been criticized as being a younger version of conservative Prime Minister John Howard, 68.
“It is too soon to form a judgment about Rudd’s personality. We do not know enough about the man to form a final verdict,” author Nicholas Stuart concluded after writing an unauthorized biography of the Labor leader.
The personal section of Rudd’s official parliamentary biography gives no clues to his personality, stating only: Born 21.9.1957, Nambour, Queensland. Married.
In 1981 Rudd married Therese Rein, whom he met at university and who now runs a successful job placement business. They have three children.
So little is known that when it was revealed in August that Rudd once briefly visited a New York strip club, but was too drunk to remember any details, his approval rating went up and Australians were relieved to know he doesn’t work all the time.
The youngest of four children, Rudd grew up in poverty in a small country town in the northern state of Queensland.
His life was thrown into turmoil at age 11, when his father died after a car crash. The family was forced off their farm, shaping Rudd’s early political views on the value of welfare.
“When my father was accidentally killed and my mother, like thousands of others, was left to rely on the bleak charity of the time to raise a family, it made a young person think,” Rudd said in his first speech to parliament in 1998.
Rudd mastered Chinese language, culture and politics at the Australian National University in Canberra, where his tutors described him as serious and self-disciplined, and he joined Australia’s diplomatic service after graduation.
He served in postings in Stockholm and Beijing before working for the state Labor government in his home state of Queensland.
Rudd won a seat in Australia’s parliament in 1988 and the first four words he spoke in parliament made it clear he had ambitions. “Politics is about power,” he said as he started his first speech.
He ended with an equally bold declaration: “I have no intention of being here for the sake of just being here. Together with my colleagues it is my intention to make a difference”.
Promoted to the opposition foreign affairs portfolio in 2001, Rudd quickly built a reputation for hard work and gaining media attention, regularly ringing reporters after work hours and on weekends to promote his views on the issue of the day.
He cemented his national profile with regular spots on morning television, where he would spar with junior ministers about the political issues of the day.
Rudd was elected Labor leader in December 2006 and has worked frantically ever since to build his image and profile.
Additional reporting by James Grubel, Canberra, editing by Michael Perry