April 04, 2009 12:00am
IT CAN'T be the same Kevin Rudd, can it?
Surely the cranky-pants who reduced a female RAAF flight attendant to tears over a meal mistake on his VIP jet is not the same bloke who ordered backbencher Belinda Neal to undergo anger management counselling?
As an apologetic Prime Minister said in London when the story leaked out, he's human like the rest of us.
He has flaws, and one of them - according to a long-standing acquaintance - is that "Kevin's not flash with people who work for him".
But there's more than that behind the Rudd rage incident. This column can reveal that the Prime Minister has been involved in a long-running spat with the RAAF's 34 Squadron, which operates the VIP flights.
"He has issues with them and they have issues with him," a source said.
Those issues came to a head when the Prime Minister had his brain snap on the flight from Port Moresby after the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in January.
Not only did the PM's "special" meal - he prefers fish or chicken to red meat - go missing, there were no meals available for any of the politicians and senior bureaucrats accompanying him.
Only light refreshments were served and - since the Boeing 737 took off at 9pm, it had been a long day and the plane was not due to land in Canberra until the early hours - that was deemed by Rudd to be inadequate.
He did not hide his irritation, the 23-year-old air force staffer on the receiving end of his blast wept, and -despite a subsequent apology from the PM - an official report on the incident was filed by the VIP Fleet Group Commander.
It blew up the way it did because there was a history.
There had been problems previously involving catering - 6am flights out of Canberra, for example, where breakfast did not turn up.
It is not as though anything very elaborate was expected, given that all Rudd wants for breakfast normally is Vegemite or honey on toast.
The belief grew among those around Rudd that standards in the VIP Squadron had become sloppy, and proper training was not being provided.
The PM would ask for a cup of tea, and a flight attendant would arrive carrying a glass of orange juice.
Rudd would be engaged in an important in-flight meeting with ministers, and a RAAF staffer would enter the cabin and interrupt the discussion.
Rudd does not handle this sort of thing well. He developed a set against those he thought were not upholding the standards expected on VIP flights.
Over the same period, people associated with the VIP Squadron had become sick of what they saw as the Prime Minister's royal ways.
They felt he treated them as menials, and they were upset by the way he spoke to them at times.
It is not as though those who staff the RAAF VIP fleet are unused to prima donnas. Gareth Evans was no slouch when it came to expelling the dummy, and Mark Latham made a mark during his one election campaign as Labor leader.
Rudd's behaviour must have been remarkable to produce the reaction it did.
There was also resentment over repeated cancellations of flights at the last minute, or long periods spent waiting on the tarmac for the No. 1 VIP to turn up.
One person close to the action said yesterday: "It became war." An air war - and now the RAAF has shot down the PM.
He should now be under no illusions - the revelation that his sharp tongue caused a young woman to cry will damage him.
According to officials who were on the plane, Rudd's expression of displeasure to the flight attendant was pretty low on the Richter scale by his standards.
And it is true, as his defenders argued, that the tantrum was a trivial matter compared with the great events that preoccupied the Prime Minister this week. The G20 leaders' summit in London on how to deal with the recession sweeping the world was about as important an international meeting as you'd get, and Rudd's role in it was not insignificant.
Should we care that the Prime Minister has a temper if he is doing the right things to try to protect Australia's economy from a global disaster?
Maybe not. But in politics, small things can often have a big impact. They certainly affect perceptions.
As Rudd prepared for the G20, he basked in the glow of an opinion poll showing his popularity at an extraordinary level - up there with Bob Hawke at his peak.
But the PM will not remain popular if the punters decide that what they see is not the real Rudd.
That is why the story is dangerous. It is the first real public confirmation of claims that there are two Rudds - the bright, cheerful Kevin that viewers of Seven Network's Sunrise program came to know, and a darker, more aggressive, less likeable figure the public does not get to see.
According to a Rudd admirer who nevertheless has few illusions about the bloke: "He just doesn't have a good bedside manner. You'd never employ him in human resources."
Cabinet colleagues, Labor MPs and government staffers have no shortage of stories about the PM's temper and colourful use of expletives.
A close Rudd associate once told a friend of mine: "One day, something will happen and it will all come undone.
All it will take is for someone to spill coffee on him when he thinks there are no cameras there."
Another person who knows Rudd well says: "It's one thing to be cranky, but he can be cruel. And that doesn't sit well with his strong Christian principles."
So Belinda Neal probably has cause to feel miffed. She may well feel that somebody needs to counsel Rudd.
Julia Gillard may be the appropriate person to do it. As Acting Prime Minister, she could phone Rudd and repeat the comment she made when details emerged of Neal's abusive run-in with staff at Iguana Joe's nightclub on the NSW Central Coast.
"As a general statement about politicians, anywhere, anytime," Gillard said then, "we should be treating the people who are dealing with us with respect."