In the end, his fall was precipitate, even Shakespearian.
A leader who had once been so popular and powerful finished his reign isolated and bewildered. For months now, support for the Prime Minister has been slipping away: in the polls, among factional power-brokers, and among the MPs and Senators of his party.
One by one, and then all in a rush, Rudd was deserted by his supporters. The revelation his chief of staff, Alistair Jordan, was ringing around doing the numbers yesterday underlined the extent of his isolation within his own government. Where were Rudd’s loyal factional lieutenants? The stark truth was Rudd had none.
A leader that had campaigned so well in 2007, that had led Labor to victory after the wilderness years of John Howard’s government has not even survived his first term — knifed by the party apparatchiks who control the factions in the Australian Labor Party’s byzantine internal politics.
At the end, his only friends were members of the Left faction he didn’t even support. It was left to John Faulkner to walk him from the party room through the media pack, as The Australian‘s Samantha Maiden trailed alongside with a tape recorder. He kept his composure, but only just.
"I was elected the leader by the people of Australia as the Prime Minister of Australia" he declared in his defiant press conference last night, but of course the Prime Minister holds that role only with the support of Parliament. In the party-political system of this nation, that means the support of the parliamentary members of your party. John Howard always enjoyed that support. Kevin Rudd enjoys it no longer.
The men who have removed the man who was only 18 months ago Australia’s most popular Prime Minister ever have re-asserted their control over the party. They are not exactly faceless — they have been variously reported as Mark Arbib, Karl Bitar and David Feeney — and nor is this a purely factional coup. In the end, Rudd proved so unpopular among his colleagues that he didn’t even stand against Julia Gillard, realising that he had no chance of success.
While Kevin Rudd was at one time very popular in his party, in truth his support base was always narrow. Rudd comes from Queensland, rather than the traditional power-bases of ALP politics in New South Wales and Victoria. And although he was aligned with the various right factions, including the New South Wales Right, who supported him as the man they considered best able to win the 2007 election, he was never truly one of them in the way that Paul Keating was.
Rudd’s famously dysfunctional management style has also played a part in his downfall. Unlike John Howard, the outgoing Prime Minister has not made a habit of cultivating back-benchers and office bearers in the party. He has been disorganised, rude and at times peremptory — not a recipe for personal support.
Once the move to replace Rudd began to gather steam last night, it quickly became unstoppable. Even those who wanted to stand on the sidelines were forced to declare their support. In doing so, federal Labor has turned to the only obvious candidate — the woman they believe can stem the deterioration in Labor’s electoral support and lead the government to re-election.
Julia Gillard is our new Prime Minister: the first woman to hold the highest office in the land. A nation founded by predominantly male settlers finally has a woman leading it. But can she lead Labor to re-election?
That depends whether you think the Government’s problems are merely about leadership and communication, or whether there are more substantial issues.
It is an issue of policy — the backflip on the emissions trading scheme — that has proved to be a significant factor in Labor’s slide in the opinion polls.
It is an issue of policy — refugee and border protection policy — that has marginal seat members in the outer suburbs spooked.
It is an issue of policy — the Resource Super Profits Tax — that has dominated media coverage of politics for the past six weeks, further damaging Labor in the polls.
Ironically, last night’s coup came after a reasonably good week for the Government. The passing of the Paid Parental Leave scheme and the broadband network deal with Telstra gives Labor some important legislative wins and some good news announcements to sell in the media.
But Rudd’s time had run out. When it came to speak to the media this morning, he let slip the logical mask. Rudd’s concession speech was his best in many months, indeed, one of his best in office. Flanked by his children and wife Therese, Rudd ticked off a long list of his Government’s achievements, before losing his composure when talking about his achievements in health policy, in rural cancer care and in establishing a national organ donation register.
“People out there are three times more likely to die in the first years of their diagnosis through the lack of services … we’ve done something to change that … and it’s big,” the Prime Minister blubbered. It was a compelling moment of political drama.
We saw Kevin Rudd refer specifically to his moral and spiritual beliefs, to his love for his wife and his family, and for the pride he feels in the achievements as Prime Minister. When he referred to the momentous event of the apology to the Stolen Generations, we saw, once again, the sensitive and affectionate man so many Australians had warmed to.
It was a little bit of Kevin07 at the last, but it was far too late.
“And now, we’ve got to zip,” he finished, and disappeared behind the curtains of the doors to the Prime Minister’s courtyard. And then, in the brutal way of politics, focus turned to the new leader.
In contrast to her departing predecessor’s, Julia Gillard’s press conference was measured, competent and controlled. “I asked my colleagues to make a leadership change because I believed that a good government was losing its way,” she declared.
The new Prime Minister laid out her background, values and governing philosophy. She spoke about growing up in “the great state of South Australia” and the importance of hard work she had learnt from her parents. She took responsibility for her role in the current government, and promised a more consultative and open government under her watch. She signalled her belief in climate change, she paid tribute to the troops serving in Afghanistan, and she spoke at length about “a nation where hard work is rewarded and where the dignity of work is respected.”
The policy consequences of the new leadership team will be intriguing to watch, in both the short and long term. Gillard immediately flagged that she will drop the Government’s taxpayer-funded pro-RSPT ads and “throw open the doors” to the mining industry. In return, she asked the mining industry to scrap their attack ads — an interesting tactic, and a tacit admission of the pain the mining tax controversy was inflicting.
Gillard also pledged to campaign to win a national consensus on the need for a carbon price and increased taxes on mining, but she pointedly stated that, on refugee and asylum seeker policy, “I am full of understanding of the perspective of the Australian people that they want strong borders, and I will provide them.”
And so Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan departed for an appointment with the Governor-General — marking another dramatic point in what has been an extraordinary 24 hours in politics.
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