A COUPLE of days ago, I found myself shouting at the radio. “For God’s sake, answer the bloody question!” I suspect there were many such cries of frustration in households around the nation. Kevin Rudd was being interviewed – one of the 14 or so radio and TV appearances in his much-publicised media blitz on the asylum seeker issue. And he had nothing to tell us. No answers. Just platitudes, slogans and spin.

The Prime Minister’s minders would have done better to keep him locked up in The Lodge and away from the phone. What is the point of a media blitz when you have nothing to say? All Rudd achieved was to deepen suspicion that he hasn’t a clue about how to deal with the problem. He resembled a headless chook running around in circles.

Tuesday’s dramatic Newspoll – Labor down seven points and an 18-point two-party preferred lead slashed to just four – shocked Rudd. And his response to the poll shocked quite a few in the Labor caucus. As one of them said: “It doesn’t matter if this is a rogue poll. It doesn’t matter if the swing against us is seven points or five or three. What matters is the way the PM and those around him reacted.”

Under real pressure for the first time since he became Labor leader three years ago, Rudd found himself without a message and without a position. He was wrong-footed by a bad poll and a difficult issue. And now a growing group of critics in the party are pointing the finger at structures Rudd has set up around himself and the Government. It is no exaggeration to say there is a degree of panic among Labor MPs as the crisis over asylum seekers worsens.

The panic has deepened with every day that the Customs ship Oceanic Viking remains off the coast of Indonesia with its cargo of rescued Sri Lankans refusing to go ashore. The group, with its “take us to Australia or else” demand, in effect hijacked the vessel. They have made Rudd – who claims to have tough policies – look weak and indecisive.

According to caucus sources, as a result of Rudd’s dominance of the party and the way his office is set up, he is isolated from the kind of advice that might help to deal with the situation. The older, more experienced hands originally on Rudd’s staff have left. And, to quote one of Labor’s longest-serving parliamentary operators: “We no longer have powerful people in caucus who can walk in and offer a frank view. “That’s because they’re all, in one way or another, clients of Kevin’s.”

In short, there is no way wiser heads can get a message of sense into Rudd’s office, and that’s a serious problem. Even Labor MPs who simply want to register their concern at the extent of anti-boat people sentiment in their electorates have to be very careful. One of them explains: “If you give Kevin or his staff a hard message, they just cut you off.”

The Government has not been inactive. During the week, the PM belatedly got around to phoning the Sri Lankan President in a bid to ease the pressure on Tamils to flee that country. And Australian officials aboard the Oceanic Viking went to great lengths, with offers of rapid processing of claims, to tempt the 78 asylum seekers to leave the ship. But the perception is that it has all been ineffectual.

No one suggests there is any easy solution to the situation Rudd faces. It’s as complex a political problem as an Australian leader is likely to encounter. John Howard handled a lot of difficult situations and experienced some horrific opinion poll slumps. At times – in 1998, 2001 and early 2004 – pundits were just about ready to write him off. But I can’t recall Howard looking as though he didn’t have a handle on a problem – except at the very end.

In tough times, a political leader needs a machine to help him fight his way through. Rudd – pretty much by choice – has no such machine. If he is now forced to order the Oceanic Viking to take the stubborn Sri Lankans to Christmas Island, it will be a humiliating backdown, and caucus criticism will become more vocal.

Rudd may be close to over-reaching himself in his cavalier disregard for party feeling. ALP anger stirred up by the appointment of Peter Costello to a cushy post on the Board of Guardians of the Future Fund – coinciding with the concern over asylum seeker policy – should be a warning to him. It provoked muttering not just among Labor MPs, but among Government staffers as well. Labor, after all, had spent years painting Costello as economically incompetent. Front benchers – including Treasurer Wayne Swan – had repeatedly accused him of dishonesty. And now the Labor Government praises his expertise and gives him a key economic job. It demonstrates the hypocrisy that causes politics to be held in great odium by the public.

When, three days later, Costello announced that he would become managing director of a new investment and corporate advisory firm, the muttering increased. In the words of a prominent MP: “Think of the credibility it gives to the CEO of a new merchant bank to also be on the board of one of the world’s biggest sovereign funds.” Paul Keating’s bitter denunciation of the appointment was far closer to rank and file Labor thinking than Rudd’s justification of jobs for the (Coalition) boys.