Losing popularity, the Labor Party stages a surgical strike in the leadership
Jun 24th 2010 | SYDNEY
LESS than a year ago Kevin Rudd rode high as one of Australia’s most successful prime ministers. Suddenly, his spectacular career has come to a crashing end. With his rating in the opinion polls sliding disastrously, and a federal election due soon, a panicked ruling Labor Party on June 24th dumped Mr Rudd as leader. They replaced him with Julia Gillard, his deputy. She will give a country once branded as a bastion of male chauvinism its first female prime minister.
As his support crumbled among Labor’s 115 federal parliamentarians, Mr Rudd had declared defiantly the previous evening that he would fight a leadership challenge from Ms Gillard. But the coup turned out to be bloodless. Faced with a humiliating defeat, when the moment came Mr Rudd stood aside. His colleagues elected Ms Gillard unanimously. Wayne Swan, the treasurer, will take over as deputy prime minister.
Instead of making a scheduled visit to the G20 summit in Canada, where he was due to meet Barack Obama, Mr Rudd has now become the only prime minister Labor has ditched during a first-term government. The speed of his demise has astonished Australia’s political class. Labor had hailed him as a reformist hero after he led the party to power in late 2007, unseating the 11-year conservative coalition government under John Howard.
Mr Rudd started by ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change, then issued a long-awaited formal apology to Australia’s indigenous people for past injustices. His approval rating reached 71% in April 2008; it was still at 63% last October. Until recently the Liberals, the main opposition party, looked as if they would present no threat in this year’s election: since their defeat, they have swapped leaders three times.
All that changed in early May, when polls turned badly against Labor. In one month Mr Rudd’s approval rating fell by 11 points, to 39%. Another poll earlier this month, showing the government’s vote had fallen to 33%, sent tremors through Labor powerbrokers. Votes leaked more to the Greens than to the Liberals; but the poll still gave the opposition a winning lead, even after the distribution of second-preference votes.
The trigger was Mr Rudd’s decision in late April to defer a planned emissions-trading scheme (ETS) until at least 2013. Legislation for it is stuck in the Senate, the upper house of parliament, where Labor lacks a majority. Mr Rudd had made attacking climate change a defining pledge of his platform. His apparent decision to abandon it dismayed voters and damaged his credibility on other issues.
One of these was a “resources super-profits tax” which Mr Rudd announced last month. From 2012, it would tax mining profits at a rate of 40% after they reach a certain level. A noisy campaign against the tax by big mining companies drowned out Mr Rudd’s claim that it was only a fair way of returning a mining boom’s riches to Australians. Polls indicate public opinion is evenly split on the tax.
Fears about the government’s crumbling fortunes unleashed unhappiness among Mr Rudd’s colleagues over his management style. A workaholic, he tended to control government as a one-man band, running the public service in Canberra ragged and shutting some colleagues out of key decisions. One environment minister learned of the ETS’s deferral only by reading about it in the press. And Mr Rudd’s short temper had won him few friends to call on when the final crisis loomed.
Choked with emotion after seeing Ms Gillard take over, he took credit for invoking a swift response to the global financial crisis with a fiscal stimulus that helped Australia avoid a recession. But Australians no longer seemed to be listening to his boasts about this and other achievements.
The campaign starts here
At 48, and with a reputation as one of parliament’s most combative debaters, Ms Gillard must now find ways to make them start listening again. Born in Wales, she emigrated with her parents as a small child. She entered parliament 12 years ago, after working as a lawyer. Her red hair, broad Australian accent and sharp mind have made her one of the most watched figures in Australian politics. From her base among Labor’s left faction in Melbourne, Ms Gillard has moved pragmatically to the centre. She oversaw the Rudd government’s partial dismantling of the Howard government’s workplace laws, which had vested power mainly with employers. But she has also managed to forge cordial relations with business.
Ms Gillard fronted her first press conference as prime minister by declaring that a “good government was losing its way”. She offered to “re-prosecute” the case for a price on carbon. And she proposed a deal to end the mining-tax row. She will cancel an expensive series of television ads the government had bought to sell its case (to no apparent avail), and ask the big mining companies to do the same. Both decisions will help give Ms Gillard something of a political honeymoon, and space to build support before the election she says will happen “in coming months”. Human-rights leaders, though, worry that she may be tempted to “lurch to the right” (as Mr Rudd promised not to) on another issue draining the government’s support: the growing number of asylum-seekers arriving in northern Australia by boat.
Tony Abbott, the latest opposition leader, rates poorly with women voters. Ms Gillard is popular across party lines. Still shocked, the government can only gamble that her fresh approach and capacity to charm will prove the weapon it needs to win a second term.
It is a little like the Blair/Brown struggles in Australia at the moment, where the Prime Minster Kevin Rudd may well be displaced by his deputy, Julia Gillard.
By political editor Chris Uhlmann
Kevin Rudd looks likely to be dumped as Prime Minister.
Factional powerbrokers have spoken to the ABC and are awaiting the outcome of a meeting between Deputy Leader Julia Gillard and Mr Rudd.
The move against Mr Rudd began several weeks ago in a discussion between Mark Arbib and David Feeney from the NSW right faction.
The pair met Ms Gillard this morning and by noon had told her they had the support of the NSW right, the SA right and the WA right.
They told her that the party could not win the next election with Mr Rudd as Prime Minister but with her they could go forward with a strong message.
The two powerbrokers said even without having picked up the phone they would get a 60-40 split on the right, with the left split down the middle.
Mr Feeney and Mr Arbib said they had done their work and were now waiting to see the outcome of the discussion with Ms Gillard.
Senior party strategists and some cabinet ministers are now convinced Mr Rudd cannot win the next election.
One senior party source said: "This crypto-facist made no effort to build a base within the party and now his only faction - Newspoll - has deserted him. He is gone."
Labor sources do not believe there is any way back for Mr Rudd from this crisis.
Rudd's popularity has been dwindling rapidly these last months, and he is perceived as quite artificial by the Australian public. Still, I am not sure this is the right time for Gillard to assume leadership. The election is fast approaching, and with such short notice she won't have a strong platform to secure enough votes to remain in power more than a few months. One wonders what the Labor right is thinking.