Last night everything came to a head – the constant speculation, the outrageous op-eds, and the inevitable cries of ‘What the hell is going on here?’ from the Australian people. Faced with a petition calling for a Special Caucus meeting to decide the Labor leadership, Prime Minister Julia Gillard called a spill for 7pm. In an exclusive interview with Sky News’ David Speers, she invited ‘challengers’, and insisted that the loser leave politics at the next election.
Of course, she didn’t utter the name ‘Kevin Rudd’, but there was only ever one contender. This was to be nothing less than a final showdown. And – unlike the bungled attempt by Simon Crean in March this year – Rudd stepped up. His style could not have been more different. The Prime Minister gave a quiet, exclusive interview. Rudd held a press conference in the Caucus Room, effectively sending a message that he already held the high ground, and was reaching out to all viewers.
As the time wore down, rumours and leaks were everywhere. Rudd had the numbers. Gillard had the numbers. This person was switching allegiances. Nothing new, really – but then there was a bombshell. Bill Shorten, widely regarded as the ‘kingmaker’ of the Labor Party, head of the National Right and instrumental in removing Rudd in 2010, announced that he would be supporting Rudd. He brought around seven votes with him, and from there the tide turned. Water Minister Tony Burke, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Finance Minister Penny Wong, both stalwart Gillard supporters, also decided to support Rudd.
The result: 57-45. Kevin Rudd was sworn in – again – as Prime Minister this morning.
For some, this was something for which they’d been waiting since 2010. For others, it was nothing less than a coup – and here I confess myself entirely bemused. Gillard supporters – themselves the beneficiaries of a leadership challenge that toppled a sitting Prime Minister – cried foul. Turnabout, it seems, is not fair play when it comes to Gillard being ousted.
It’s worth taking a look at those who changed their votes, however. Why would they abandon Gillard, after supporting her for so long? The answer is simple, and brutal: this was never about anything but winning the upcoming election – or at least, minimising the damage if the Coalition takes government.
Sounds venal, doesn’t it? Self-serving? Grasping?
Of course it is.
Remember those polls? Even the best said that under Gillard, Labor faced decimation at the ballot box. The Coalition would likely hold both Houses by majority, rendering the Greens ineffective in the Senate and Independents like Andrew Wilkie entirely powerless. Labor stood to lose Queensland and Western Australia in the Senate, as well as key seats formerly considered safe. At worst, Labor would cease to have any discernible effect as a political party for a very long time.
Then there were all those other polls, that showed Rudd was by far preferred leader, and might even make a fight out of the election. And finally, internal polling that confirmed the worst fears of everyone in the party. Under those circumstances, any politician is going to think long and hard about not only their own future, but that of their party.
Carr said on Lateline last night that ‘suddenly the next election has become very contestable. … Our achievements … were at risk from an Abbott government’. Wong said it was ‘a difficult decision’, made ‘in the best interests of the Labor party’, to make the next election a real contest.
And what about Shorten, the so-called power behind the throne? As he made his announcement, the Minister looked anything but happy. On his face was the look of a man swallowing a bitter pill. He knew he’d be the target of everything from criticism to outright hatred for changing sides, even making the point himself that his political career would probably suffer, possibly even end altogether. He may well have sacrificed himself for the party. That’s not something any politician does lightly.
Anthony Albanese was elected and sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, beating Simon Crean 61-38. That Crean ran at all was remarkable. If he expected to be rewarded for his attempt to bring on a spill, he was sadly mistaken. Albanese has shown himself throughout to be someone who works entirely for the party, and stayed loyal to the leader. His appointment will go far to heal breaches, after almost half the front bench resigned their portfolios last night. Likewise the unanimous election of Penny Wong as Senate Leader. The other key position, Treasurer, has fallen to Chris Bowen.
As I write, Prime Minister Rudd makes his first speech to the House, acknowledging former Prime Minister Gillard and lauding her accomplishments. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott delivered a speech almost identical to the one he made when Gillard first took office, changing little other than gender references. There was even a reference to the ‘faceless men’, backed up a few minutes later by Immigration Shadow Scott Morrison, who referred to Shorten as ‘the Kingslayer’. Back to normal.
Abbott squashed any talk of a no confidence motion, but the electioneering has already started. He’s called for an immediate election (earliest possible date: August 3), recycling the accusation that the Australian people have – again – been cheated of their right to elect their Prime Minister. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Abbott knows full well that we elect our government, not our government’s leader. Of course, any given leader may sway our vote, but once the party is in power (or Opposition, for that matter), that leader can be changed at any time. That’s how a party-based Parliamentary system works.
So now what?
Rudd faces a choice: keep the September 14 election date, and use the time to establish himself as leader of a party capable of bringing the fight to the Coalition; bring the election date forward, and go immediately into full campaign mode; or push the date back to its latest possible time, hold more sitting weeks and consolidate legislation.
As Prime Minister, he gains an incumbent’s advantage; right up until the election period officially starts, he can still act in an executive fashion. He has the time to show how his policies will differ sufficiently from both the Coalition and his predecessor to justify his re-election. This will particularly centre on issues of climate change, asylum seekers and marriage equality (to which Rudd is a recent convert).
Any option has dangers. Rudd’s popularity may well wane with time, leaving Labor’s election chances in the doldrums. Long election campaigns always test the patience of the electorate, and in this case, the Coalition is likely to run an almost entirely negative strategy aimed at destroying Rudd. They have plenty of ammunition – some of the comments from Gillard’s supporters during the 2012 leadership challenges were positive gifts to the Opposition.
Bringing on an earlier election, however, has its own risks. Rudd and his new Ministry need to clearly show themselves as a cohesive team. The new Ministers only have a short time to establish their credentials as things stand, which allows the Coalition to argue that their side (populated by many of former Prime Minister John Howard’s cabinet) has the necessary experience.
I suspect Rudd will leave the election date at September 14. It’s the best compromise. It won’t be an easy three months, though; the Opposition will be relentless, and the government needs to push its message through the debris of last night’s challenge. Rudd will continue his tactic of stumping for local members. In fact, he’ll be all over the media – pressers, interviews, QandA, various current affairs programs. He’ll face innumerable questions about the leadership challenge, as will those who changed their votes to support him.
It remains to be seen if the media will finally stop asking those questions, since now – in the words of The Age – they can have a debate about policy and ideas. (Sarcasm definitely intended).
And for the rest of us? There’s no doubt Labor has a new spring in its collective step. We may well actually see a contest in September, not a fait accompli that delivers us at least three years of rubber-stamp government.
Regardless of whether you support Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, the Greens or anyone else, that has to be a good result.