The now former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard started her day with rough questioning from the Opposition leader Tony Abbott on the floor of the parliament, while the government benches were ablaze with talk and movement concerning a challenge by Kevin Rudd for her position. As the day went along there was rumor of a petition being circulated calling for a spill motion for the leadership position of the labor party, which would also entitle the leader to be prime minister if he had the confidence of the house. With this siege going on against Gillard, the petition actually never materialized, the prime minister herself called for a vote in the party room at 7pm that night, on the condition that whoever lost would also leave politics completely, such the bitterness of this challenge.
Just about an hour before the historic meeting Labor Minister and powerbroker Bill Shorten called a snap press conference to announce his abandonment of PM Julia Gillard and support of Kevin Rudd. The switch of loyalty of two strong supporters of Gillard, Senators Penny Wong and Bob Carr brought an expectation of change to the parliamentary corridors, leading to a 57-45 vote in favor of Rudd, with the popular Anthony Albanese elected as deputy leader and becoming deputy prime minister, replacing Wayne Swan.
Rudd had been undermining Julia Gillard as Prime Minister ever since she deposed him for being unpopular with the Australian electorate in 2010. Rudd, elected by the people in 2007 had always believed he was the legitimate leader of the Labor Party and should be the prime minister of Australia.
Last night was Rudd’s third challenge against Gillard. In the second challenge Rudd failed to even put himself forward as he didn’t have the numbers. This forced ministers like Kim Carr and Chris Bowen to resign indicating the deep division within the party due to the bitterness between Rudd and Gillard. This third attempt last night probably succeeded because most members of the labor caucus knew that Labor under Gillard would probably lose up to 30 seats in the coming polls against Abbott’s Liberal National Party Coalition. They saw Rudd as the only chance for Labor to reconnect with the people.
However within an hour of the ballot, Labor looked like falling part with six ministers Wayne Swan, Greg Combet, Craig Emerson, Peter Garrett, Stephen Conroy, and Joe Ludwig all resigning from the ministry. What made it even worse was that most of them also said they would retire from parliament as well. On Thursday Defense Minister Stephen Smith he would retire in this coming election.
The Rudd challenge has saved Gillard from a disastrous defeat at the polls where Labor would have only maintained a small handful of seats which would make it difficult for any future leader to rebuild the party from. A large section of the Australian electorate had still not forgiven her for the way she disposed of Kevin Rudd in 2010.
Although Gillard had of achievements during her stewardship of the government, this did not generate electoral popularity for her, which in the view of many people in the party was bringing the labor vote down. During the last two weeks where Gillard was defending herself against Rudd’s attacks, she tried to mobilize public support with the gender issue, which only seemed to polarize her supporter base even more.
Rudd had always been popular with the Australian people. Rudd knows how to play the media and campaigning is his strength. His campaigning abilities inflicted so much damage on the Howard Government during the 2007 election, even former prime minister John Howard lost his seat in parliament. For many parliamentarians he is their only hope of remaining in parliament after the election. Rudd has for months been operating like a de facto opposition leader walking around shopping malls in marginal electorates of Western Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, helping out these members.
Rudd is opposition leader Tony Abbott’s worst nightmare. Up until 6.30pm last night it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would become the next Prime Minister of Australia.
To try and counter the electoral threat from Rudd, the Liberals have posted an advertisement on YouTube with insulting comments about Rudd, with comments made by Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson, Peter Garrett, Stephen Smith, Stephen Conroy, Kate Ellis, and former politicians Graeme Richardson and Mark Latham. If the Rudd-Abbott exchange in Parliament on Thursday is any indication of what the election campaign will be like, it going to be a very highly competitive one, where now both Abbott and Rudd will be fighting for their political lives.
A Morgan Opinion poll taken on Wednesday night of 2000 people in marginal seats around Australia indicated 49.5% support for labor and 50.5% support for the Liberal National Party, a rise of more than 7 percentage points for labor almost instantaneously. A Newspoll released on Thursday showed a 50/50 dead heat between the two major parties.
So when will the election be held? Prime Minister Rudd in the parliament on Thursday morning indicated that it might be later than sooner, giving him an opportunity to reestablish his authority in the position of prime minister. He may travel to Jakarta next week for an annual bilateral meeting next week, takeover chairmanship of the G20, and take Australia’s seat in the UN Security Council, all events that will show him as the statesman he sees himself as. Rudd’s public manner since his election last night indicates that he means business and is determined to win the coming election. It would be hard seeing him miss these events for anything.
So the Australian election that must be held within the next four months looks like being strongly fought by two adversaries who don’t take kindly to defeat. It’s going to be competitive again, where the Australian electorate will likely polarize this time and vote for the major parties, squeezing out the independents from the lower house. The events of yesterday will be quickly forgotten, where the business of the day will become the main focus of the electorate.
Rudd is well aware that there are a number of Australians suffering financially in the outer suburbs, where real unemployment rates may actually be higher due to statistical definitions used by the Australian Department of Statistics. He declared the China resources boom over and wants to revive manufacturing where the lower Australian dollar will assist. He also knows that the youth of Australia are indifferent to politics and winning them over will greatly assist in securing victory. He also needs to get business on side, after abandoned tax cuts, issues over union rights to visit workplaces, and 457 visa issues. It is also unlikely Rudd will strengthen the mining tax, as he wants to woe the mining magnates who Abbott has been courting of late.
Australia will be presented two visions in the coming election, where Rudd may escape the baggage of the former Gillard Government, where the campaign will be like two opposition leaders fighting for the No. 1 job, with no prize for second place.
One can also see over the last couple of weeks adjustments to Abbott’s rhetoric and narrative. Expect Abbott to put up more vision of what Australia would be like under an Abbot Government during this campaign, as this is the weakness that Rudd will exploit to the hilt. Conversely, Abbott will exploit the near collapse of Labor, which is almost as catastrophic as the Labor split in 1955 which cost Government for almost two decades.
Some Liberal members tonight are even contemplating whether they were right to ditch Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader in 2010.
The smile Rudd has been holding back in front of camera is tell-tale of his own deep satisfaction in extracting revenge on Gillard and resting back the premiership which he had long felt was taken from him cunningly.
However for Rudd to pull off a victory will still be a tall order. The labor party is in tatters, he still has to pull together a ministry, there are still a lot of voters fed up with labor’s infighting and want a change, and Abbott is still a formidable opponent.
Expect the next four months to be very eventful in Australian politics, while two ’opposition leaders’ show the Australian people all their tricks.
Murray Hunteris associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, and consultant to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology. Murray is the inventor/author of a number of chemistry patents in Australia and as a researcher was the first to report many new natural compounds in international journals like the prestigious Journal of Essential Oil Research.