Australia’s Political Soap Opera
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Australia’s Political Soap Opera


Well, if that was Act III in the Kevin Rudd drama, it was a fizzer; the equivalent of the main protagonist walking out onto center stage and forgetting his lines. Exit stage left for the entire cast.

First, let’s recap. Australia – a rich, fortunate country that has been one of the chief beneficiaries of China’s insatiable demand for commodities – dispenses in 2007 with 11 years of conservative Coalition rule and hands a landslide victory to the Labor Party, led by former diplomat (and fluent Chinese speaker) Kevin Rudd. It’s a generational shift and Rudd is wildly popular with the electorate. It looks like Labor will be settling in for the long haul.

Except that Rudd proves to be profoundly flawed. By most accounts an indecisive megalomaniac, he leaves his parliamentary colleagues feeling ignored and abused. When his poll ratings finally begin to dip in mid-2010, following an embarrassing reversal on climate change policy and a controversial mining tax proposal, his colleagues topple him, in a coup as unprecedented as it is brutally efficient. Such is Rudd’s lack of support that he doesn't even contest the leadership spill. In his place, the party installs his deputy Julia Gillard, who becomes Australia’s first female prime minister.

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In his book The Party Thieves, ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy recounts scenes of Labor MPs breaking out the wine in their offices the night before the coup, confident they have the numbers and that voters will soon forget. History suggests this may have been hopeful.

Gillard soon calls an election, and must confront not only a Coalition opposition rejuvenated under a disciplined Tony Abbott, but also damaging leaks from within her own party. Fingers point to Rudd as the source. The election leaves neither party with a majority, but Gillard is able to cobble together a government with the support of several independent MPs. Rudd is inexplicably given the post of foreign minister.

The new government is soon in trouble. A popular deputy leader who has a strong base of support within her party, Gillard grates on much of the Australian electorate. She’s helped by the fact that über-conservative Abbott is hardly more popular. Gillard does well holding the government together, but she is dogged by speculation of a challenge from Rudd, who retains widespread voter support.

Finally, in February 2012, the challenge happens. But Gillard is a master tactician, and she forces Rudd to play his hand too soon—indeed, goading him into an astonishing resignation as foreign minister while in Washington D.C., followed by a 36-hour dash back to Australia to contest the leadership spill. Rudd is soundly beaten, 71-31, and moves to the back benches.

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