With his R2-D2 demeanor and slightly awkward, slightly pompous manner of speaking (a manner not entirely unknown, in your correspondent’s experience, to the Australian foreign policy community), the common touch wouldn’t seem to be one of Rudd’s strong suits. But he’s a highly effective campaigner and extremely adept at using the media, evident in the last several days when he provided images of him being “mobbed” in his local electorate, which the media obligingly ran repeatedly. And he’s a master at getting the public involved in his personal narrative.
This popularity protected Rudd, until in 2010 it began to slip. Policy missteps, most notably a decision to defer action on a previously pledged carbon tax, saw his government take a hit in the polls. Still, this was a dip, not a collapse. So it came as a shock to most Australians when on June 23 of that year, Rudd was deposed in a remarkably brisk and ruthless coup. Deputy Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister.
That was Act I. This week was Act II: Rudd’s Revenge. Apparently, Labor Party powerbrokers in 2010 decided that the less said about the abrupt leadership change the better. Rudd’s alleged failings were not at the time convincingly presented to the public. Nor was an explanation given as to why an unprecedented removal of a popular first-time prime minister was the only possible course of action. (Nor indeed why someone allegedly so flawed would be permitted to represent Australia as foreign minister).
That left the Australian people baffled and angry that their overwhelming choice for prime minister had been fired. And it gave Rudd cover. The fact that his replacement Gillard has struggled to connect with the electorate gave him an opportunity. Gillard is the anti-Rudd: popular with her colleagues, consultative, not afraid to make the tough decisions (she passed the unpopular carbon tax legislation), but also profoundly unloved among the broader Australian population. Undoubtedly, this is partly because of the way she came to power – many Labor faithful haven’t forgiven her. In a country where men like to think they are real men, there’s also more than a hint of misogyny in many of the criticisms. But she has also made her own policy missteps and awkward reversals, and some of her public performances – say, during the Queensland floods last year – can most generously be described as wooden. Yet, she has effectively managed a minority government, the best that Labor could manage in the 2010 elections that followed the coup.
So we have a classic case study in parliamentary democracy. Australian’s prime minister isn’t directly elected by the people, but is chosen by his or her colleagues in the party room. Rudd can – and did – call for “people power,” but if you can’t work and play well with your parliamentary colleagues, your popularity doesn't count for much.