In an outcome that was widely anticipated, Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition has defeated Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party in the federal election in Australia on Saturday. At the time of writing, the coalition had a healthy majority of 88 seats, to Labor’s 57, in the 150-seat parliament. In his concession speech Rudd announced that he would not stand again for the leadership of his party.
The result brings to an end six years of often tumultuous Labor Party rule. After defeating long-term Liberal Prime Minister John Howard decisively in 2007—an election in which Howard lost his own seat—it appeared that Rudd and Labor would be settling in for a long period in power. However, Rudd’s chaotic and megalomaniacal management style put many of his parliamentary colleagues offside, and he was ousted in a party coup in 2010, to be replaced by his deputy Julia Gillard, who become Australia’s first female prime minister. There followed a cliffhanger election, after which Gillard was able to cobble together the slimmest of majorities with the support of independents.
Despite her success in passing significant legislation, Gillard’s leadership was undermined by constant speculation of a Rudd challenge. Rudd did challenge in early 2012, in which he was beaten decisively, and then aborted a second challenge in a farcical set of events earlier this year. Nonetheless, polls continued to suggest that Rudd remained more popular with the average voter, if not among his actual colleagues, and with Labor facing devastating losses in the pending election, Gillard was finally ousted in June.
Hopes that Rudd might pull off an election miracle were soon put to rest, however. Australian voters were palpably tired of Labor’s dysfunction. Rudd also faced a determined assault by the papers of the right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch, which dominate the Australian news landscape and make very little pretense of any kind of objectivity.
The result is an unlikely victory for a man once described as “unelectable.” A Rhodes Scholar who once trained to be a priest, Abbott is the most conservative leader Australia has had in many decades, a politician who once described climate science as “absolute crap” (to be fair, he subsequently moderated his position) and who has had to tack left on a number of issues to fit the policies of the conservative coalition.
Abbott’s policy positions and his penchant for gaffes have not made him a popular leader in Australia. Even during the worst of the Labor Party leadership meltdown, Abbott often came out second best in head-to-head polls on preferred prime minister. However, he has worked hard to moderate his image, especially in the eyes of women, and has been admirably disciplined in opposition.
His task as prime minister will be much more complex. Australia has enjoyed two decades without recession—not even the global financial crisis could derail this remarkable performance. However, much of this economic good news owed to a commodities boom driven by insatiable demand from China. With evidence suggesting that era may be coming to an end, Abbott may well face a much more challenging economic situation than his immediate predecessors have. His campaigning offered little information on how he would deal with the constraints.
All that may make Abbott an easy target for Labor in opposition. But Labor will first need to get its own house in order, and that will mean putting the divisiveness of the Rudd era behind it. Julia Gillard has already made a dignified exit from politics. It is not surprising that some of Rudd’s Labor Party colleagues are urging him to do the same.