“Kevin07, Gone by 11”, was the taunt in Canberra when I was there last month – and so it proved. Kevin Rudd, who returned Labor to power in Australia after 12 years in opposition, and who achieved some of this highest approval ratings in Australian history, was unceremoniously dumped by his party today. What does this mean for the direction of the Australian government?
In broad political terms, probably not much. Though Julia Gillard is, in Labor factional terms, from the left, she was put there by the right. They made the same calculation as James Purnell did over Gordon Brown last year – that the party would go down to electoral defeat with its current leader. However, as Martin Kettle notes, the Australian Labor party has none of the sentimentality that dogs British Labour and it acted.
What went so badly wrong? Rudd was at his best when making big political stands – signing Kyoto and making the apology to the indigenous people of Australia, and in particular the Stolen Generations. He was at his worst when he lost his populist touch and started to speak as a technocrat.
Ultimately, though, he lost his way over climate change. He called it the “greatest moral challenge of our time”, but when facing parliamentary defeat deferred his legislation. His thoughtfulness became his undoing. A more populist leader would never have embarked on an emissions trading scheme in advance of other countries, a more Machiavellian one would have manoeuvred his legislation to defeat in the Senate at the joint hands of the Greens and the Liberals. Kevin Rudd chose to delay. That caused a catastrophic rupture with voters. Young urban voters split to the Greens and middle Australians to the Liberals. This left Labor facing a wipeout.
Can Gillard turn it round? Almost certainly. She has grown in stature as deputy prime minister and was responsible for education – a central pillar of the domestic reform agenda – and the difficult industrial relations portfolio. She is a robust parliamentary performer, more than able to hold her own in what is a far more rowdy chamber than the House of Commons. In opposition, she was named by the Speaker and excluded for 24 hours for calling Tony Abbott “a snivelling grub“. (I was in the opposition box that day: it was a towering performance.)
And she is a very effective communicator who more than has the measure of the Liberal leader, Tony Abbott – with whom she has often sparred in good-nature when appearing on television together. Abbott’s populism rattled Rudd who couldn’t find a voice to deal effectively with it. But Abbott’s appeal to the Liberal base is more than balanced by his difficulty with women voters. He is a devout Catholic who is on the record as saying that women should not give away their virginity lightly. Gillard led the attack.
Women are probably the key swing group in the forthcoming election. If she can draw a line under Rudd’s errors, get a grip and establish competence quickly, Julia Gillard is likely to get Labor back on track for re-election. After all, there’s been no one-term Australian government since the 1930s.
John McTernan, a commentator and political strategist.