Kevin Rudd: A volatile but polished politician

SYDNEY, Australia (AFP) - Ever a grandiloquent man of the people, Australian Labor exile Kevin Rudd made a polished return as Prime Minister on Wednesday appealing directly to the public on his "proven leadership".

Mr Rudd, a charismatic ex-diplomat, stormed to power in 2007 with a landslide victory that ended a decade of conservative rule, campaigning for generational change with an emphasis on issues such as global warming.

He was for years a darling of the public, but his confidence with voters translated to egotism - even megalomania - behind the scenes, according to ruling party colleagues who had, by mid-2010, lost faith in the Mandarin-speaking prime minister.

A series of policy mis-steps provided the pretext for party apparatchiks to swoop, deposing him in a shock coup in favour of his deputy, Ms Julia Gillard, just weeks before the 2010 election.

History flipped on Wednesday when, as parliament prepared to rise for the final time before September's national elections, Mr Rudd threw his hat in the ring for a third leadership showdown in little more than a year.

"The truth, if we're all being perfectly honest about it right now, is that we're on course for a catastrophic defeat unless there is change," Mr Rudd said of the September 14 polls, in which Labor is facing obliteration according to opinion surveys.

"Tens and thousands of ordinary Australians, members of the Australian public have been asking me to do this for a very long time."

Known for his volatile temper, the 55-year-old came from humble beginnings to lead the Labor Party and oust long-serving conservative leader John Howard.

The fluent Mandarin speaker promised closer engagement with Asia, made a landmark apology to Australia's Aborigines for their treatment under white rule, and ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The assured, if bookish, leader unravelled Mr Howard's harsh immigration policies and kept Australia recession-free throughout the financial crisis, something no other advanced economy achieved.

He reminded colleagues of these credentials on Wednesday as Australia's decade-long China resources boom cools and the economy faces a painful transition away from its reliance on mining.

Mr Rudd endured a tough childhood, forced to temporarily sleep in a car aged 11 when his family was evicted from their Queensland farm following his father's death in a road accident.

He said that experience shaped the views on social justice that led him to run for federal parliament, where he was elected in 1998 at his second attempt.

Before arriving in Canberra, he was a senior bureaucrat for the state Labor government in Queensland and had a lengthy career as a diplomat, including postings to Stockholm and Beijing.

He is married with three children and his wife Therese Rein is a millionaire businesswoman.

In November 2007, he and Ms Gillard together brought the Labor Party back to power in a landslide after 12 years in the political wilderness.

Mr Rudd consistently topped opinion polls in an enduring love affair with the Australian public until the ardour cooled in 2010 and Gillard pounced.

The start of his downfall can be traced back to December 2009 when he failed to pass much-vaunted emissions trading laws and badly damaged his credibility with voters.

Mr Rudd was further savaged in a very public dust-up with the powerful mining industry over plans for a new tax on resources profits which finally sparked his ouster.

Despite his dumping as prime minister, Mr Rudd remained popular with voters, consistently coming out on top as preferred leader ahead of Ms Gillard, who is struggling in the polls.

Wednesday was his third tilt at his old job since being dispatched in 2007 - he famously quit as foreign minister in February 2012 while in Washington to challenge Ms Gillard, losing 31 votes to her 71.

His backers agitated again for a ballot in March, but Mr Rudd refused to stand when Gillard called his bluff and called a vote.