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Politics Gets Personal in Australia (Page 3 of 3)

Or does it?

In fact, this challenge probably came too early for Rudd. Yes, the Labor Party under Gillard appears headed for defeat at the next election, but that election isn’t due for another 21 months. A week, as they say, is a long time in politics. Twenty months may well be long enough for Gillard to find her feet and improve her poll ratings. If not, then the party has the time to consider an alternative, whether that be Rudd or a third candidate.

Rudd may have done better to wait until closer to the election. Impending oblivion may have made MPs willing to forgive and forget old slights. He, of course, may have been following the playbook of Paul Keating, who as treasurer challenged then Prime Minister Bob Hawke in June 1991, lost 44 to 66, went to the back benches, but then challenged successfully a second time in December of that year. Perhaps Rudd hoped to view this first challenge as a similar sort of beachhead, and if Gillard continues to underperform, then he may have felt he could successfully woo additional supporters and set up a second challenge closer to the next elections. But Keating never faced the intense dislike that the majority of the caucus evidently feels for Rudd. And frankly, 71-31 is likely too emphatic a defeat to allow Rudd to think about challenging again anytime soon.

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Either way, the psychodrama over the last week has done the Labor Party no good at all. Founded during Australia’s industrial revolution, Labor has a proud record of improving the conditions of ordinary Australians. With union membership in decline and traditional labor issues receding (when school leavers in Western Australia can make $100,000 for driving a truck, it’s hard to get exercised about class struggle), the party has been remarkably successful at pivoting on policy. As Rudd himself said Friday, Labor is the party that can deliver both green and growth. Forget Blair/Clinton and the ballyhooed “third way” of the 1990s, Labor had this down in the 1980s, with deregulation under Hawke-Keating that helped pave the way for Australia’s superior economic performance of the past two decades.

So while latte-sipping progressives can be lured away by the Greens, and while the white collar noblesse oblige types can feel comfortable with the moderate wing of the Liberal Party, Labor has successfully taken its policies into the 21st century, appealing to centrists and the center-left alike. By picking moderate leaders, it has held power for nearly half of the post-Whitlam era.

Unfortunately, the party’s structure remains firmly entrenched in the last century. Dominated by factions and riven by petty squabbles, Labor too often airs its dirty laundry in public. This past week has been a case in point. Party reform will be a critical task if Labor is to convince a disgusted electorate that it deserves to hold onto government.

For all the talk of party unity that will inevitably follow this imbroglio, it will take a remarkable turnaround for Gillard to sail into the next election unchallenged. And despite being thumped in the ballot this morning, it is an open question whether Rudd will retire quietly to backbench obscurity. For now, the winner would seem to be Opposition leader, Tony Abbott. But effective though he has been, Abbott’s über conservative stance makes it hard for him to lock in a majority of the electorate. Inevitably, there will be those within Labor who think they can take him on; the emergence of a third candidate remains a distinct possibility.

This drama, then, is very likely to be a three-act play.

James Pach is publisher of The Diplomat.

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