Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was left with little choice but to rethink her government line up after facing down a challenge from the man she ousted as leader. The question now is whether the revamp she has unveiled, including the promotion of a former state premier to the prestigious post of foreign minister, will be enough to lift the ruling Labor Party’s sagging poll numbers.
Gillard handily beat her former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd in a leadership vote after he had resigned to challenge her. Rudd, seen as relatively popular in the country but not among his colleagues, was ousted in a leadership coup in 2010. His thrashing in Monday’s contest – by 71 votes to 31 – has left him and a key ally in the political wilderness.
In announcing the reshuffle, Gillard named Bob Carr as foreign minister, replacing Rudd, who has been relegated to the backbenches. Carr is a highly respected figure in Australian politics, and his appointment will add a touch of glamor to an otherwise drab team of politicians.
Carr retired as New South Wales premier in 2005, and his ten years at the helm, which included the highly successful 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, made him the longest serving premier in the state’s history. But his appointment as foreign minister was something of a surprise, with analysts having expected Stephen Smith to make a return to the job.
Soon after the appointment was announced, speculation surfaced that Smith had attempted to block Carr, prompting Gillard to remark: “The decisions I've made about my team are about merit, about the strongest possible team.”
Carr for his part added: “…in the end, when the distinctive voice of the prime minister rouses you from your slumber and says, ‘Will you be foreign minister of Australia?’ I couldn't have found it in me to have said no.”
But Gillard showed she wasn’t necessarily in a forgiving mood when she made her cabinet picks. Gone was Rudd supporter Robert McClelland, who was also demoted to the backbenches. Smith, who preceded Rudd in foreign affairs and had been tipped to return, will remain as defense minister.
However, the purge was limited, with other Rudd supporters Martin Ferguson, Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen keeping their ministries, in resources, transport and immigration, respectively.
Among other changes that Gillard is expected to take into the next election, due in about 12 months, are: Kate Lundy as Minister for Sport and Multicultural Affairs, David Bradbury as Assistant Treasurer and taking up the newly created position of Minister Assisting for Deregulation, and Jason Clare, who will take on the additional portfolio of Minister for Defense Materiel. Attorney General Nicola Roxon, meanwhile, will take on the additional portfolio of Emergency Management, while Environment Minister Tony Burke will take on the additional role of Vice President of the Executive Council.
Gillard was expected to win Monday, but the margin of victory will have been a relief after a leadership challenge that smacked more of petty personal gripes, back biting and a desire to make headlines rather than about improving the national interest.
Political commentators have mercilessly dined on the acrimony between the pair, which has festered ever since Gillard ousted Rudd. Rudd had led the Labor Party out of the wilderness and into office at the 2007 poll, ending the career of the nation’s long-serving conservative leader John Howard.
However, his style – a perceived combination of pompous arrogance and a tendency to write government policy on the run – had alienated the Queenslander from the Labor Party caucus, the all-important state factions in Victoria and New South Wales, the public service bureaucracy and the voting public. Polls at the time left little doubt that had Rudd remained prime minister, the party would have lost the 2010 election, and conservative Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott would have assumed Australia’s top job.
Gillard argues, with much merit, that she was left with no choice.
An early election was called, and Gillard won by a single seat after an abysmal campaign that many argue was sabotaged by deliberate and embarrassing leaks, seen as a behind-the-scenes revenge by Rudd. The leaks stopped after Rudd was offered the post of foreign minister in the new government.
Since then, Gillard has negotiated a raft of reforms ranging from a carbon tax to health care, despite the slimmest of majorities and ceaseless sniping from the Rudd camp, which was egged-on by conservative compliant journalists spoiling for a fight.
The reality that the Labor Party faces moving forward, though, is that it has consistently astonished and disappointed its rank and file with its ability to self-destruct. In the past, it was usually issues such as conscription, the nationalization of banks or open brawling between left and right wing factions at the height of the Cold War that were at the core of ideological implosion. But the latest infighting lacked any of that significance. Instead, the Gillard/Rudd political joust resembled a couple of kids duking it out in the backyard sand pit.
If the Labor Party is to have any chance at the next election it will need to put the personality politics behind it. The size of Gillard’s victory means that at least it now has a chance of doing so.