The Big Question: Who is Kevin Rudd, and are Australians about to vote him their new PM?
Why are we asking this now?
Australia's 13.5m voters go to the polls on Saturday, and everyone – from pollsters to pundits and bookmakers – is tipping Labour, led by the relatively unknown Kevin Rudd, to win government for the first time in 14 years.
The leading online betting site, sportingbet.com.au, is offering $1.22 per dollar wagered on a Labour victory, compared with a handsome $4.15 for a bet on John Howard's conservative Coalition being re-elected. Mr Howard is going for his fifth election victory, having first won in 1996 (ending 13 years of Labour rule), then 1998, 2001 and 2004.
The latest opinion poll, published in The Australian newspaper, gives Labour an eight per cent lead over the Coalition, once votes cast for smaller parties have been redistributed.
What's the basis of Mr Rudd's popularity?
Cerebral, strait-laced and ferociously driven, Mr Rudd is not the knockabout "larrikin" type that Middle Australia warms to or identifies with. But his very blandness is part of his appeal; Australians want a change, but are cautious about leaping into the unknown. Mr Rudd represents a fresh face and a "new generation" of leadership (he is 50; Mr Howard is 68), yet he projects himself as a safe pair of hands.
In a typically biting observation, Dame Edna Everage, aka the comedian Barry Humphries, noted recently that he resembles a dentist – a comparison seized on by one political journalist, who wrote: "Like a dentist, Rudd appears to be a calm, competent professional... the sort of figure you could turn to for an unappealing but important task, such as fixing your teeth. Or running a government."
But Mr Rudd is personable, too, with a self- deprecating sense of humour, and has demonstrated on the campaign trail that he has a common touch.
Is he also benefiting from an anti-Howard feeling?
Definitely. Despite delivering more than 11 years of economic prosperity, the Prime Minister is seen by many as old, stale and complacent. In addition, the blue-collar "battlers" who once put their faith in him are feeling the pain of successive interest rate rises, as well as industrial relations reforms that have undermined job security and working conditions.
Mr Howard has repeatedly warned the electorate that you can't "change a government without changing a country". But voters are no longer sure they like the country that Australia has become under Mr Howard: materialistic, inward-looking, xenophobic at times. Mr Rudd seems to offer an innate decency that has been absent from public life for a long while. He has promised a more honest, accountable style of government. But promises are easy to make when you're in opposition.
What is Mr Rudd's background?
Untypical for a Labour leader. The youngest of four children, Mr Rudd grew up in rural Queensland, a conservative heartland; his father, who farmed land he did not own, died when he was 11, plunging the family into penury. Shocked by the lack of support systems, Kevin joined the Labour Party at 15 and soon began to read Hansard.
Always bright academically, he gained a first-class honours degree in Chinese language and history, but came into politics quite late, elected to parliament only in 1998 after two previous careers as a diplomat and senior bureaucrat. In that first incarnation, he was posted to Stockholm and then – appropriately for a Sinophile and fluent Mandarin speaker – Beijing. In the second, he transformed the Queensland public service, earning himself a reputation as a head-kicker and the nickname of "Dr Death". Mr Rudd, who calls himself "a very determined bastard", has never belonged to a trade union, and is not backed by either the Right or Left faction of the Labour Party. He is an individualist who has risen partly on merit, partly by default, and sees himself as a Labour moderniser.
Sounds like Tony Blair. Does he have a John Prescott?
Mr Rudd's deputy and right-hand woman is Julia Gillard, a flame- haired former industrial lawyer who headed the Australian Union of Students in the early 1980s. While Mr Rudd is broadly on the right of the party, she is firmly on the left. Tough and smart, Ms Gillard, who does not have children, was accused by one conservative politician, Bill Heffernan, of being "deliberately barren" – a remark that, while condemned by Mr Heffernan's colleagues, seemed to illustrate the gulf between the two sides of politics. Ms Gillard, who will become Australia's first female deputy prime minister if Labour wins power, is not the only significant woman in Mr Rudd's life. His wife, Therese Rein, is a successful businesswoman who has built up a multi-million dollar international employment business. If Mr Rudd is elected, Ms Rein would be Australia's first political spouse with her own surname and an independent working life.
What about Mr Rudd's policies?
The Labour leader has promised to sign the Kyoto Protocol on reducing global carbon emissions and withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq. He will also, he says, repeal the unpopular industrial reforms, invest in an "education revolution" and reform the creaking public hospital system. In the key area of the hip pocket, Mr Rudd's pledges are almost identical to Mr Howard's: deliver sound economic management and tax cuts while balancing the budget.
Foreign relations will not look substantially different; Mr Rudd views the US alliance as a cornerstone of Australian foreign policy, although he may be less slavish to American interests than Mr Howard, and he is certain to give a higher priority to engagement with Asia, particularly China.
What else should we know about him?
Mr Rudd's keen sense of social justice dates from his family's eviction by the farm's owners following his father's death. They were left homeless and helpless; he said later that "no one in Australia should have to suffer that kind of insecurity". His strong Christian faith is another driving force; born a Catholic, he is a practising Anglican whose hero is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis.
The Labour leader's squeaky-clean image was dented by revelations that he visited a New York strip club a few years back – a story that did not harm his opinion poll ratings. If elected, Mr Rudd – a self-confessed workaholic with three children – would be the least experienced politician to lead Australia. Asked about that yesterday, Mr Rudd, who became Labour leader only last year, replied: "I've actually been around a bit and done a few different things."
So is Kevin Rudd a shoo-in for prime minister?
* Every opinion poll since Mr Rudd took over as party leader has predicted a comfortable Labour victory
* Voters are sick of John Howard, who has overstayed his welcome at the helm of Australian public life
* After 11 years of Conservative government, a new political cycle is about to begin
* Labour needs to win 16 seats in order to form government, and that is a formidable challenge
* Only twice since the Second World War has Labour won power from the Opposition
* The floating voters who will determine the outcome of the election could still opt for the tried and trusted Mr Howard