After being unceremoniously dumped in 2010, after one failed and one aborted leadership challenge, and after three years suffering the slings and arrows of outraged caucus colleagues, Kevin Rudd has his revenge. In a successful challenge today he has ousted Julia Gillard as leader of the Australian Labor Party and – probably – as prime minister 57 votes to 45. Gillard indicated prior to the challenge that she would retire from politics at the next election if she lost.
The challenge brings to an end to the interminable speculation about the Labor Party leadership, which has dogged Gillard’s government ever since she and her colleagues engineered Rudd’s removal from office just over three years ago. The coup then was blamed on Rudd’s chaotic management style and falling poll numbers. With Gillard’s own polls in recent weeks making Rudd’s nadir look positively robust, there was an air of inevitability about the challenge today.
Rudd remains – to put it politely – a divisive figure among his colleagues. Memories of slights while he was prime minister linger, and he has been widely blamed for undermining the leadership in the years since. However, polls suggested that Labor faced an historic defeat at the federal elections due later this year, and ultimately party members were not prepared to shuffle lemming-like off the cliff.
Despite growing calls for her to step down, the famously resilient Gillard refused to budge. The strategy of the Rudd camp was to prod her senior ministers into tapping her on the shoulder, but perhaps mindful of the damage to their own careers if they were to end up behind two coups, they refused to comply.
That put Rudd in a spot: he had insisted that he would only return to the leadership if he was drafted, and hence leading a party more or less unified behind him. However, if he had failed to challenge and Labor was wiped out at the election, his chances for a return to high office would effectively be nil. Moreover, he had previously told colleagues that if senior party figures such as Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten – often named as a future leader – publicly broke with Gillard, then he would be prepared to move. This is apparently what happened today, when Shorten signaled that he was switching support, which was probably the final nail in Gillard’s coffin. With that cover, in a press statement prior to the caucus meeting that decided the matter, Rudd was able to claim that too many colleagues and voters were calling on him to challenge to allow him to stick to his pledge. The flip is unlikely to be an issue.
Those hoping that this was the concluding episode in the soap opera that is Australian politics these days are likely to be disappointed, at least for now. First, it is not yet clear whether Australian Labor Party leadership translates into the prime ministership for Rudd. Gillard held the slimmest of majorities, and Rudd requires the support of five of the seven crossbenchers in parliament to retain it. He does not yet have that support confirmed.
If he fails to achieve a majority, then either he will need to call the election or Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will become caretaker prime minister. Either way, it would be an unprecedented situation for Australia.
Assuming Rudd can successfully resolve that immediate situation – and chances are he will – then he needs to be able to put together a lineup of ministers. With so much frontbench divisiveness, that will be a tricky task, and Rudd will be under pressure to retain senior figures with whom his relationship has soured markedly. Some have already indicated that they would not serve in a Rudd government. Bill Shorten, on the other hand, has played his hand skillfully and has cemented his status as the party’s leading candidate for future leadership.