Australian Labor leadership coup 2010
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted from office by his own party on June 24, in a move which will likely surprise most foreign observers who aren’t used to seeing parties dump their leaders from office. Brian Mulroney wasn’t dumped by his party when his party sunk to utter lows in polls in Canada back in 1992, and Gordon Brown never faced a serious consistent challenge in the Labour Party, even at utter lows in summer 2009.
Kevin Rudd, leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) since 2006 and Prime Minister since the ‘Ruddslide’ of 2007, has gone from being a wildly popular Prime Minister with sky-high approvals to a disliked (some will say ‘hated’) and low-rating leader in the past months or so.
Firstly, as for the raw facts, talks of a leadership challenge to Rudd had been circling around in the ALP and its affiliated trade unions for a few weeks, or since polls have started showing a fall in the ALP’s primary vote. The government’s popularity suffered as a result of Rudd stalling a carbon-emissions trading scheme, despite Rudd having said in 2007 that climate change was practically the issue of the century. He has lost both credibility out of this PR-disaster, but also lost votes on his left to the Greens. A proposed resources tax which would have, after 2012, taxed mining profits at a rate of 40% after they reach a certain level. A counterattack in the form of ads by the mining companies has proved fruitful for them and negative for the ALP. Finally, more voters are concerned about illegal immigration arriving to Australia on boats, an issue which has seen some demanding a shift to the right by Rudd and has seen increased support for the opposition Coalition. The ALP powerbrokers, who are mostly little-known shadowy figures working from trade unions or backbenches (but hold power over the leadership), were worried about the next election – which could likely be held this fall – if Labor remained led by Rudd. They defected en masse to Julia Gillard, Rudd’s Deputy Prime Minister and a popular and charismatic figure. Though hesitant at first, Gillard agreed to ask Rudd for a challenge. At a press conference on June 23, Rudd said that he had agreed for a leadership vote. Yet, in a defiant speech, he hammered on his successes while in office and warned that his government would not, if he was re-elected, ‘lurch to the right on the question of asylum seekers’. Seeing support evaporate and being given only the support of only 30ish of the 115 Labor federal parliamentarians, he did not fight as earlier announced and backed off. Gillard was elected without opposition and became the 27th Prime Minister of Australia and the first female PM in Australia.
But for all the talk of Rudd’s fall being precipitated by low polling, one would think that he stood at 15% approval ratings. It was not. In fact, in the last Newspoll, Labor led the Coalition 52-48 on 2PP and only narrowly trailed the Liberals on first preference votes. However, Australian politics and ALP internal politics are particular are treacherous and an affair dominated by much back-stabbing. The ALP itself is factionalized, but unlike other factionalized parties on the left, the factions of the ALP – the right and the left – are fossilized in the structure of the party. Rudd, himself a member of the dominant right, won the leadership in 2006 from Beazley after an alliance with the left’s top contender, Julia Gillard. The fossilized nature of ALP factions means that powerbrokers, the infamous shadowy back-room people, hold considerable power within the party though they are not often seen in positions of power in the federal government itself. Rudd, although a member of the right, never enjoyed good relations with the powerbrokers of the ALP and they tolerated him between 2006 and 2010 because he brought the party success and support. Once the electorate stopped supporting him, his lack of genuine support within the caucus became sorely felt. Rudd’s authoritarian nature while governing, and his habit of centralizing decisions and leaving cabinet ministers in the dark about decisions further hurt his image. The ABC quoted an ALP powerbroker: “This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party. Now that his only faction, Newspoll, has deserted him he is gone.” The right abandoned him en masse, and it seems that the cards were reversed in the run-up to the caucus meeting when it appeared that only the left remained behind him while the right was united against him. Furthermore, the crucial states of Victoria and New South Wales abandoned Rudd, a Queenslander, in favour of Gillard, a Victorian.
Although Julia Gillard, 48-year old, has been associated closely with almost all of the government’s decisions, she appears to the electorate as a separate person, a fine speaker, and a less authoritarian person. She has already decided to drop government ads supporting the mining tax while mining companies while drop theirs, likely meaning that she’ll gently bow out of the issue which could have hurt the party electorally in Western Australia and Queensland where mining is important. She enters with a likely honeymoon period and she would be intelligent to call for a federal election for as soon as possible. She is a better leader for the ALP than Rudd in marginal seats in NSW and Victoria, and she appeals to women voters much more than the Liberals’ Tony Abbott, a social conservative and staunchly religious person. Gillard is likely the ALP’s short-term route to a second term which will likely be won this year.