Observing recent political events in West Island from across the ditch, I have been struck by both the swiftness and the apparent brutality of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s removal by his own party in favour of his second-in-command Julia Gillard. The justification for his removal apparently a decline in Labor support in the polls during an election year; for which he as leader was deemed responsible. To a UK political observer the initial comparison is inevitable (and Martin Kettle at the Guardian milks it for all its worth).
But UK Labour is not Australian Labor, and we should be glad of this. Firstly Australian Labor is institutionally factionalised in a way which makes Blairite-Brownite “rifts” look like trivial squabbles over soccer team affiliation. Rudd had no core faction behind him, hence when the challenge came they swung behind Gillard. In addition, Rudd had probably alienated the powerful union factors with miner membership though his proposals for a new supertax on mining profits. The plan to reinvest these profits to the benefit of all Australians is in principle a sound idea, but one which threatened the interests of mine workers. Consequent hostile advertising from this sector likely cost a few points in the opinion polls and encouraged Rudd’s colleagues (with union backing) to act. Some of us in English circles may smile wryly at the thought that there is somewhere in the west where miners can still bring down a PM.
It is also much easier to stage a coup when only MPs have a say in their party’s choice of leader. Much of the action happened overnight in this time zone – talk of speculation coming around midnight followed by the news of Rudd’s resignation when I woke up on the floor the next morning. By teatime Gillard was meeting the Governor-General. Had Milliband, D. ever followed through on his many threats to stick the knife in we’d have gone through the whole nominations, campaigning, and membership ballots palaver. Arguably this grants the incumbent a significant advantage, but if it saves us the undignified spectacle of a brutal internal coup whilst being notionally more democratic then I for one am grateful.
Rudd had been in office for just under two and a half years, after a landslide victory in ’07. He had brought the Labor party back into power after 13 years of opposition. He’d initially taken a bold stand on global warming in a country with a deeply sceptical (and Murdoch-tainted) media, and at least attempted to redress historical grievances with the indigenous peoples. Until a matter of months ago he had polled as the 2nd most popular Australian PM in history – now he becomes the only to be ousted from office in a single term. 3-year term limits mean that an election was likely before the end of this year; with a change at the top it will likely come about even sooner (as Gillard herself has stated). We shall see if the Labor party’s gamble pays off. If it does, there may well be many a forlorn “what-if?” in the Milliband camp (though Labor’s defeat is not as likely, let alone as certain, as ours appeared in ‘09). I’m not sure which reflects worse on a party – regicide against a successful election winner, or the prospect of changing leaders twice in one term. “Unelected Prime Minister” rhetoric is disingenuous yet potent amongst the electorate, especially when there is very little to hide the naked ambition of those who make it to the top. I’ve seen identity politics used already to justify the outcome; a seemingly desperate spin. On this note it may be worth considering the success of other welsh redheaded Labo(u)r leaders.
I’m glad this undignified spectacle never befell Gordon. Rudd gave a gracious albeit tearful resignation speech, worth watching if only for his parting joke of “I’m still Prime Minister for another 30 minutes… I’m no longer leader of the Labor Party but I am Prime Minister… anything could happen folks”. To an outsider he seems a decent, honourable and principled man – I only hope his party don’t wind up regretting what they’ve done.
- BULS Southern Hemisphere correspondent