Has Rudd's flower wilted?

Kevin Rudd is having a shocker, he was boo’d at the vaunted home of Queensland Rugby League, Lang Park, then had Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 read to him in the parliament by a mocking Tony Abbot. To insult to injury the Lizard of Oz came out and attacked Abbott giving him a big ups, as anyone the Lizard of Oz hates must actually be a good bloke.

Just as John Howard’s damaging characterisation of Kim Beazley as lacking “ticker” captured a vague public unease with his Labor opponent, Abbott’s epithets for Rudd such as “Prime Minister Blah Blah” and “All talk, no action” have had more cut-through than any number of debates about the fine points of economic stimulus or carbon trading. “I think that people are starting to see the inner bully in Mr Rudd,” is Abbott’s latest simple message.

Abbott also had the good fortune this week to be attacked by Paul Keating, who described him as a “poor man’s John Howard” and an “intellectual nobody”, thus reminding everyone of a day when the electorate loved Howard and hated Keating. With enemies like Keating, who needs friends?

Could it have got any worse for him? Turns out it could.

And then, in what has been dubbed Rudd’s Latham moment, voters saw for themselves last Friday a side of the Prime Minister that belies his “aw shucks” Milky Bar kid persona, and which suddenly gelled with all the stories about temper tantrums, hair dryers and how he made a young female RAAF flight attendant cry when she brought him a disagreeable meal.

In front of photographers and TV cameras recording a meeting about health reform with the Premier, Rudd was bizarrely rude. As Kristina Keneally, a civil and attractive woman still on her training wheels, tried to engage him in polite routine conversation for the benefit of the whirring cameras, Rudd pointedly ignored her.

He did not meet her gaze or acknowledge her courtesies, but busied himself fussing with the ring binders and folders on the desk in front of him, pursing his lips, even as her voice faltered and grew less certain, and her eyes implored him to look up. Keneally may be the head of a broken-down government but she is personally popular and voters have continued to warm to her engaging personality and plucky style.

Treating any woman with such withering contempt would be bad manners but treating a woman as well-liked and unthreatening as Keneally was beyond the pale.

Anyone who watched the performance would have heard the same sound of pennies dropping as there was with the infamous election eve image of Mark Latham trying to stand over the smaller, older John Howard with a power handshake in 2004.

A hundred small impressions of Rudd coalesced in those few excruciating moments before he lightly slammed his fist on the desk. There was more information in the subtle play of body language between the two politicians in the video footage which has been running all week than can be readily explained, but it will haunt him until election day.