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.
Rudd then needs to prepare for an election, due by November 30. Gillard had already called the election for September 14, but that date was not confirmed and Rudd will be able to change it. Early speculation is that the election will be held on August 24.
The main impetus for the shift in support to Rudd today was the polling – Rudd has remained much more popular with the Australian electorate. Although the conventional wisdom is that the damage to Labor has been too great and that even with Rudd, it will likely still lose, his return does brighten Labor’s fortunes considerably.
To build on that, and credibly contest the election, Rudd faces the immensely difficult task of uniting his party and ending the public acrimony. The fact that 45 members of the party still voted against Rudd suggest just how hard that job is going to be. Success will require some demonstration to his colleagues that Rudd 2.0 is a changed man. Today, in other words, will need to be about redemption not vindication. Given the resentments Rudd and some of his opponents have very clearly harbored over the past three years, this is going to be a big ask, although he made a start by emphasizing in his press statement that there would be no recriminations following his return to the leadership.
Labor now also has the awkward job of explaining to voters why it has chosen to reinstall a man whom it had effectively declared unfit for office. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Coalition doubtless have video and sundry other embarrassing materials prepared for the upcoming campaign. Again, Labor will have to find some sort of redemption narrative to make this appear anything other than grubby politics.
Still, Labor has some assets, apart from Rudd’s relative popularity with the voters and his undoubted campaigning skills. For a start, despite their deep dysfunction, the Labor governments under Gillard and Rudd before them have some achievements to tout, notably steering Australia through the global financial crisis as one of the very few countries to escape a recession. Ironically, one of Gillard’s signature reforms, to education, passed the senate just hours before the leadership challenge.
Second, Tony Abbott is no Barack Obama. He is himself a divisive political figure with positions that tend to be well to the right of those of most Australians. The Labor party can accumulate their own archive of unfortunate Abbott utterances and exploit fears of an Abbott government rolling back popular reforms.
In short, if the Labor Party is able to point the gun at someplace other than its foot, it has the ability to make the election a contest at least.
That doesn’t change the very obvious and dire need the party has for its own reform. A seemingly endless series of scandals at the state and federal level (two of those seven crossbenchers are disgraced former Labor members) have all but squandered the goodwill it enjoyed in late 2007, when it held government in every state and at the national level. Too much dirty laundry has been aired for Labor to put off change.
And as for Gillard, it is an ignominious end for Australia’s first female prime minister. Unlike former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally and former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, she is at least spared the fate of presiding over an historic election defeat for Labor. Through the tumultuous events of the day, she continued to show remarkable poise. Nonetheless, it seems that the shards of that broken glass ceiling in Australian politics still cut deeply.
Update: In a snap poll following the challenge, Roy Morgan Research finds that Labor is now at 49.5% on a two-party preferred basis (i.e., after preferences are distributed) compared with the Coalition at 50.5%. It is a 5 percentage point improvement on the party’s support under the previous poll, with Gillard as leader.