The Age

by Tom Switzer

Like Nixon, the PM's perceived opportunism may be his undoing.

At the height of the 1956 US presidential election, Adlai Stevenson said of Richard Nixon: ''This is a man of many masks. Who can say they have seen his real face?'' Could the same thing be said about Kevin Rudd?

In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has been taking a steady pounding on the charge that he's a flip-flopper: on home insulation, childcare centres, and most notably, emissions trading. All true.

Then again, any sensible politician accepts the need to change positions depending on what the circumstances permit and the priorities of the day demand. Even conviction politicians swap positions on sensitive political issues: think John Howard's volte face on the Snowy Mountains hydro in 2006; or Paul Keating's U-turn on the GST.

What makes Rudd so Nixonian, however, is that his flip-flops breed more doubt in people who already wonder where he's coming from.

Whereas you always knew where Howard and Keating stood and what they were about, notwithstanding the odd policy U-turn, it is difficult to identify anything their successor seems genuinely to believe other than his own political success. He has no sense of philosophical identity, conviction and inner core.

Now, lest I'm dismissed as merely a Liberal partisan, let me say that I think the Prime Minister has done some worthwhile things in office. His first budget stimulus in October 2008 was a decisive response to the Anglo-American financial crisis and played a role in insulating Australia from a gathering storm. His apology to indigenous Australians early in his term, something admittedly many conservatives had opposed, was as heartfelt as it was historic. His religious convictions, too, are genuine.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Rudd is an opportunist of such proportions that the only thing that exceeds his reach is his grasp. There is always an air of detached calculation about his performances, a sense that in different circumstances he could just as happily be arguing the opposing case.

This is a man who defined himself during the 2007 election campaign as an ''economic conservative'', committed to low public debt, fiscal rectitude and free-market reform, but who now represents the reincarnation of Whitlamism and a big-spending, big-government, debt-ridden agenda that caused so much economic angst in the 1970s.

A man who appealed to the metropolitan sophisticates by weakening Howard's border protection policy, but who now panders to Howard's battlers by preaching a ''hardline'' policy against ''evil'' and ''vile'' people-smugglers. A man whose governing creed represents symbols, not action; phoney gestures rather than difficult decisions.

A man who claimed climate change was ''the great moral challenge of our time'' and linked climate ''deniers'' with ''conspiracy theories'' and ''vested interests'', but who drops the evangelical language along with the ETS as soon as the political climate changes.

Until recently, Rudd had ruthlessly used the issue of man-made global warming to attack his conservative opponents, culminating in the destruction of two Liberal leaders. But although the tactic lacked credibility after the collapse of the Copenhagen summit, he could have still been prepared to sell his case for decisive action on the hustings. But he was intimidated by Tony Abbott, scared of a political fight and went to water.

Yet this is the kind of issue a normal prime minister would want to fight, maybe even spending political capital to do it.

Howard and Keating were never afraid to challenge popular opinion and provoke people into thinking and then arguing about the causes they sincerely believed were in the nation's interest. Rudd always takes the path of least resistance.

And so the question persists: Does Rudd believe in anything in the policy debates, or is he a creature of Sussex Street graphics, sliding into the minds of whichever crowd he's talking to?

Which bring us back to Nixon. The consensus among American liberals, led by the aforementioned Democrat Stevenson in 1956, was that ''Tricky Dick'' had espoused so many different positions, often repeatedly and stridently, that he left virtually everyone with the impression that his arguments were always suspect.

During his presidency more than a decade later, Nixon confirmed his opponents' suspicions as well as his conservative base's worst fears. One moment, he was a staunch anti-communist and red baiter; the next, he was doing detente with the Soviets and supping with Mao Zedong. One moment, he was fiscal conservative and supporter of states' rights; the next, he was an unashamed Keynesian and centralist.

The friction of playing the role of conviction warrior while being in reality a malleable politician was one of many reasons for Nixon's downfall.

Will this also destroy Kevin Rudd?

Tom Switzer, a former senior Liberal adviser, is editor of the Spectator Australia and a research associate at the US Studies Centre.