Rudd Redux: The High Electoral Stakes Behind Australia’s P.M. Switch

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Alex Ellinghausen / The Sydney Morning Herald / Fairfax Media / Getty Images

Kevin Rudd speaks to the media after winning the leadership ballot at Parliament House on June 26, 2013 in Canberra, Australia.

The swearing-in Thursday of Kevin Rudd as Australia’s Prime Minister — for the second time — is a political coup worthy of Game of Thrones and takes place just over three years after he was ousted by previous incumbent Julia Gillard in a manner identical to the way in which she came to power. On Wednesday, Rudd emerged from a snap Labor Party leadership ballot (known in Australia as a spill) with a resounding 57-45 victory over Gillard, who called for the vote following months of speculation that she was losing support within the party and across the country. Polls have been consistently predicting a Labor rout, should Gillard remain at the party helm during the national elections in September.

Rudd will now fight that election and is under no illusions about the enormity of the task that lies ahead of him. At a packed late-night press conference in the capital, Canberra, on Wednesday evening, he conceded that the Labor government’s future “is not guaranteed.” But the second-time Prime Minister is a master campaigner. During last night’s acceptance speech, he got straight down to business, wooing young voters by empathizing with their view of the political system as a “huge national turn off,” and courting heartland voters with the promise of “a big future for Australian manufacturing.” Projections show that he could even the odds of a Labor victory — and even tip them in his favor — if he brings the election forward to cash in on his honeymoon period with the electorate.

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Rudd proved to be an utterly dysfunctional leader in his first term in office. His ill-fated attempt to introduce a mining industry super-profits tax two months before his ousting in 2010 saw $16 billion wiped off the share market value of Australian mining companies and sparked a war with the powerful Minerals Council of Australia. Rudd’s concurrent decision to postpone the emissions trading scheme — one of his key campaign promises in 2007 — left him looking spineless.

Yet it was Rudd’s inability to work with others that ultimately cost him the Prime Ministership. Environment Minister Tony Burke described Rudd’s leadership style as “chaotic,” “undermining” and hamstrung by “micromanagement.” Federal Labor member Simon Crean said Rudd put “his own self-interest ahead of the interests of the broader labor movement and the county as a whole.” Added former attorney general Nicola Roxon: “We need to lance this boil.”

So why does he remain such a popular public figure?

“That is the irony of this,” says Professor Zareh Ghazarian from the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. “What we have seen over the past few years is that voters seem to have forgiven Rudd for his errors the first time around, and think he was hard done by when he was ousted by his own party in 2010. Australians are all about giving people a ‘fair go’ and since Rudd didn’t get that the first time around, voters seem to want to give him a second chance.”

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However, with the Labor Party in disarray following the departure last night of a number of high-profile ministers and apparatchiks, Rudd 2.0 will be a harder sell. His new team may also face a backlash from female voters displeased with the unceremonious 11th-hour dumping of Australia’s first female Prime Minister.

Emerging red-eyed a few hours after the defeat, Gillard made a dignified valediction speech and wished her former colleagues success. She also lambasted the opposition for an appalling string of sexist attacks. In 2007, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan said Gillard was not fit to lead the country because she had chosen not to have children and was thus deliberately “barren.” Earlier this month, a dish on the menu at a $1,000-a-head Liberal fundraising lunch was described as “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail — Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box.” And only hours before the leadership spill ​on Wednesday​, ​Liberal​ frontbencher Christopher Pyne compared ​Gillard​ to Lady Macbeth​.​ “Being the first female Prime Minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing,” Gillard said. “What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that and the woman after that, and I am proud of that.”

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She went on to list her administration’s achievements: reforms in health and public schooling, a new disability-care regime, the introduction of carbon pricing and Australia’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan. Missing was her government’s failure to contain a wave of 25,000 asylum seekers that has crossed Australia’s maritime border in the past 12 months (despite the vast sums spent on the problem). Then there’s the economy. Australia has been enjoying the sort of solid economic growth that nearly every other government in the developed world would envy, but the nation hasn’t forgiven Gillard and her outgoing treasurer Wayne Swan for promising to balance the budget. Last December, Swan even promised a small surplus. But when the numbers were crunched last month, Australia woke up to a $16.5 billion national debt and an admission from Swan that the country will remain in the red for at least another decade.

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Opposition leader Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party has made easy political capital of the Labor bloodletting, saying that the nation was fed up of the ruling party’s political skullduggery. “You deserve better than this,” he said to voters, positioning his center-right coalition as the organization to “stop the boats [of asylum seekers], to abolish the carbon tax and the mining tax and to get the budget back into the black.”

Rudd has the rest of the Australian winter to persuade the electorate otherwise. If he fails, it may well be the end of his political career. “Rudd doesn’t have strong Labor Party links,” Ghazarian says. “His position is brittle and is totally dependent on the public’s support. As soon as that goes, Labor will once again get rid of him. He will see out his terms as a backbencher and then disappear from the public gaze.”

You only live twice, as the song goes. Even if you’re the political phoenix that is Kevin Rudd.

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