The Big Question: After three months in power, how has Kevin Rudd changed Australia?

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Why are we asking this now?

Elected nearly three months ago, Mr Rudd is Australia's most popular prime minister for 20 years, according to a Newspoll survey published yesterday. Seventy per cent of voters declared themselves satisfied with his performance – the highest approval rating for a national leader since Newspoll began asking the question in 1987, and 10 per cent more than Bob Hawke, a well liked former Labor prime minister, at his peak.

But surveys and statistics do not tell the whole story. There is a new mood in the country, a sense of rebirth and regeneration. After living through 11 years of conservative rule under Mr Rudd's predecessor, John Howard, many people say that Australia feels like a fundamentally different place. Some say that Mr Howard's policies made them ashamed of their nationality. Now, for the first time in years, they feel proud to be Australian.

How has the mood changed so quickly?

Within 10 days of his Labor Party winning power last November, Mr Rudd had signed the Kyoto Protocol on reducing carbon emissions. Australia had been the only industrialised nation apart from the United States to resist doing so, and Mr Howard – a staunch US ally – was implacably opposed to Kyoto.

A week later, the new government scrapped another of Mr Howard's ideological cornerstones: the ominously named "Pacific Solution", under which hundreds of asylum-seekers were intercepted at sea, before they reached Australian waters, and shipped to remote Pacific nations to be processed. The policy was supposed to deter "illegal immigrants", and it helped Mr Howard to win an election. Then last week, as soon as parliament resumed after the summer break, Mr Rudd apologised to the "Stolen Generations" – Aboriginal people forcibly separated from their families as children.

What was thesignificance of the apology?

Injustices suffered by the country's original inhabitants took many forms, but the officially sanctioned policy of removing mixed-race children and integrating them into white society is perhaps the most reviled. In 1997 the report of a national inquiry into the practice, which was only abandoned in the 1970s, called for an official apology and compensation. Mr Howard, who had just been elected, refused, claiming it was impossible to say sorry for the actions of previous generations. His stance was a source of great bitterness, and it impeded progress towards "reconciliation" between black and white Australia.

Mr Rudd broke the deadlock, with a symbolic yet deeply significant gesture that many Aboriginal people described as the most important thing that had happened in their lives. For other Australians, too, it was a moving and momentous event, and it sparked a remarkable sense of national unity. According to Newspoll, 69 per cent of voters supported the apology.

Is there a change in style of government?

Mr Howard's Cabinet was dominated by middle-aged men in grey suits. Mr Rudd's deputy is Julia Gillard, a 46-year-old feisty redhead and former trade union lawyer. His Climate Change Minister is Penny Wong, Australia's first Asian-born minister and an openly gay woman; his Environment Minister is a former rock star, Peter Garrett. While Mr Howard insisted on living in a harbourside mansion in Sydney, the Rudd family has taken up residence in Canberra, the national capital. Mr Howard was an autocrat; Mr Rudd seems keen on consultation. He plans to hold "community Cabinet meetings" around the country, with (carefully vetted) members of the public able to quiz ministers, and has announced a summit in April of 1,000 of Australia's "best and brightest" thinkers, intended to map out a strategy for the country's future. Mr Rudd also has a "razor gang" scrutinising every department's budget. In the fight against inflation, politicians are expected to lead by example: the Prime Minister has frozen their pay for the next year.

Can Rudd do no wrong?

The Labor leader is certainly enjoying an unprecedented political honeymoon, and his nickname of Saint Kevin – originally given to him while in Opposition, because of his Christian beliefs – seems to be sticking. But there are small clouds overhead. Mr Rudd's past dealings with a discredited West Australian lobbyist, Brian Burke, have been aired in the media this week, although his worst sin seems to have been telling a white lie in order to avoid having lunch with Mr Burke.

A lavish New Year's Eve party at the Prime Minister's official Sydney residence raised some eyebrows, but it turned out that the event was bankrolled by Mr Rudd's wife, Therese Rein, a successful businesswoman. The couple have a 14-year-old son, and there were mutterings yesterday about taxpayers funding a childminder who is a member of Mr Rudd's staff. He assured MPs that he would be paying for that employee.

So no fun being in Opposition?

Brendan Nelson, a former GP, has the unenviable task of leading the Coalition, consisting of two conservative parties. While Mr Rudd is being called "Mr 70 per cent", Dr Nelson is Mr Nine per cent, which is a record too: no Opposition leader before him has had an approval rating in single figures. If Mr Rudd seems almost invulnerable, Dr Nelson cannot put a foot right. He persuaded the Coalition to support the Stolen Generations apology, but then made a poorly judged, mean-spirited speech in which he defended the bureaucrats behind the removals policy and highlighted the problems facing dysfunctional indigenous communities nowadays.

Can Rudd sit on his laurels?

Definitely not. Although tied to Asia more than the US, the Australian economy is vulnerable, and voters are smarting from an interest rate rise this month – the tenth in a row, the first since the recent election. Expectations of the new government are sky-high, and Mr Rudd will have to make good his grand manifesto promises of tax cuts, an "education revolution", repeal of widely disliked industrial reforms, and fixing the public hospital system. Symbolism and a new style – the hallmarks so far of the Labour administration – may be laudable. But if Mr Rudd fails to keep the economy on track, or to deliver substance, he may find his popularity plummeting.

So has Australia undergone a fundamental change?


* A sense of fair play and decency, which was absent during the Howard years, has returned

* Kevin Rudd has abolished policies that earned Australia international condemnation

* The historical significance of the apology to Aborginal people cannot be underestimated


* The new feel-good sentiment is fragile, and could evaporate as quickly as it materialised

* The government remains committed to turning back refugees at sea

* The national scandal of Aboriginal life expectancy, 17 years behind other Australians, remains