Kevin Rudd is back, the cheeky boy. Picture: The Project
Kevin Rudd is back, the cheeky boy. Picture: The Project

Kevin Rudd’s return blindsides Australia

HIS name is Kevin, he's from Queensland and he's here to ... do what, exactly?

Australia's third-favourite living Labor prime minister has been everywhere lately. Turn on your TV and there's his face.

It's a bit like flicking to a Big Bang Theory re-run - you either loved or hated this show when it burst onto the scene back in 2007, and it's still just entertaining enough to hold your attention now, but you have no idea why it is on your screen.

First, Mr Rudd popped up at the Canberra Writers Festival to dunk on Bill Shorten's failed election campaign, suggesting voters never trusted Mr Shorten and Labor was "absolutely nuts" to expose itself to a scare campaign on negative gearing and franking credits.

Kevin Rudd at the Canberra Writers Festival event, doing his not smug face. Picture: National Press Club
Kevin Rudd at the Canberra Writers Festival event, doing his not smug face. Picture: National Press Club

It is of course commonly accepted wisdom that Mr Shorten could have exploited the government's flaws and coasted to the finish line in May without taking a single risk, a la Steven Bradbury at the Olympics.

Instead, he emulated Bradbury's performance in Australian Survivor by making a bunch of people hate and subsequently vote against him for no apparent reason.

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Labor is currently examining the reasons for that political faceplant as part of an extensive post-election review. Mr Shorten and his replacement Anthony Albanese are both awaiting its findings before deciding which parts of the Labor agenda should be unceremoniously ditched.

Mr Rudd just came out and said it.

Having helpfully pointed out Mr Shorten's blunder, Mr Rudd then proceeded to appear on The Project, where he lined up a bigger target - US President Donald Trump.

Mr Shorten cost his party an Australian election. Mr Trump's seemingly endless trade war with China could spark a global economic downturn.

Confronted with those rising stakes, Mr Rudd responded with a commensurate escalation in his language, calling Mr Trump's book The Art Of The Deal "bulls***".

To you or I, that word is quite mild. To a politician on live TV, it is nuclear. A former prime minister calling out the US President's "bulls***" is the rough equivalent of a reality TV star publicly calling the Bachelor a "dog c***".

This week we witnessed both, because we live in truly blessed times.

After slapping down Mr Trump, Mr Rudd quickly covered his mouth and looked sheepishly at the studio audience, as though coyly asking: "Did I really just say that?"

But the crowd approved. It roared with laughter. Mr Rudd was the school prefect who had just called his teacher "sir" sarcastically instead of deferentially, and his peers were loving it.

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No politician can resist that sort of adulation. And so the Rudd publicity tour continued.

After a couple more highlights, including a rather pointed opinion piece warning of a potential recession next year, it culminated on Friday in a much-hyped handball showdown between Mr Rudd and radio host Kyle Sandilands.

"All I'll say to you, mate, is prepare to die," Mr Rudd said beforehand, by this point completely out of control and drunk on nerdy adrenaline. Sadly, he proceeded to lose.

The former prime minister's media blitz in recent days does seem to have come somewhat out of nowhere. So, why is it happening?

It could be to drum up publicity. Mr Rudd's Canberra Writers Festival appearance promoted his book The PM Years, and his repeated visits to schools for handball tournaments are meant to raise awareness for the National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians, which is obviously a worthy goal.

On the other hand it could be that, like every other politician, Mr Rudd is simply partial to the sound of his own voice.

Whatever his reasons, we would be wise to look past some of the attention-grabbing moments mentioned above and consider Mr Rudd's views on more substantive issues. Because it just so happens the biggest problems facing Australia at the moment are in his wheelhouse.

Mr Rudd's AFR piece warned of "complacency" in Australia's economic policy settings, given the global context of slowing growth in the United States, the ongoing trade war, Brexit, strained international relations with Iran and "all-pervasive anxiety" in financial markets.

"The risk of recession in Australia next year is therefore real. The question for the government is, are they prepared to prevent it?" Mr Rudd asked.

"Australia's long-term economic growth is not a given. It has to be earned. By the concerted efforts of our creative innovators and entrepreneurs, our hardworking families - as well as focused government policy."

He urged Australia to "start behaving like a grown-up" on the international stage and use its "special relationship" with the United States to fight protectionism.

RELATED: World leaders avoid upsetting Trump on trade at G7

A classic Rudd hand gesture there. Picture: AAP
A classic Rudd hand gesture there. Picture: AAP

And during his strikingly vulgar appearance on The Project, Mr Rudd also had some clear advice on perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Australian government - how to approach its relationship with an increasingly belligerent China.

This week we learned China had formally arrested Australian citizen Yang Hengjun on espionage charges - which can carry the death penalty - leading many experts to suggest the time for quiet diplomacy behind the scenes was over.

RELATED: China takes its 'revenge' on Australia

Mr Rudd urged Australia to remain calm but firm.

"China's a one party state. Always has been. So if I were to say to you that the Chinese were great defenders of civil liberties and human rights, that's just not true, and I've never said that," he said.

"When you're dealing with this one party state, they'll take vicious actions from time to time, like with the arrest of this individual.

"So what are you going to do about it? Frankly I think it's up to the Australian government to apply whatever diplomatic pressure they can privately, to make sure this guy is treated as humanely as possible, and secondly, that we can try and have whatever he's charged with reduced in terms of its sentencing impact."

The key word there is "privately".

"On the notion that there is an army of reds under the bed to subvert our democratic way of life, frankly I think the Liberal Party just needs to stop hyperventilating. Just, you know, pop a Mogadon, calm down for a minute," Mr Rudd continued.

Someone should probably tell Mr Rudd to calm down about handball. But when the man talks about serious subjects, he is worth listening to.

Sam Clench is's national political reporter. Continue the conversation @SamClench