On Monday, Australian politician Kevin Rudd failed in his bid to wrestle the leadership of the ruling Labor Party from Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Resoundingly rejected by his colleagues to the tune of 71 to 31 votes in an internal party-leadership poll, one of Australia’s most talented and compelling politicians has moved to the irrelevance of the backbench. There, he faces an uncertain—though not necessarily hopeless—future.
Australian politics can be as ruthless as any in the democratic world. Rudd took command of the Labor Party by virtue of a coup against then leader Kim Beazley in 2006. In November 2007, he led Labor to victory against John Howard’s conservative government, which had been in power since 1996. Less than three years later, though, in June 2010, Gillard ousted Rudd in another internal coup. Rudd took up the role of Foreign Minister but resigned last week after Gillard failed to defend him from attacks on his character by several members of her Cabinet. The rest is recent history.
To many outside the Labor Party, Rudd’s demise doesn’t quite make sense. In April 2008, four months after leading the Labor Party to victory, Rudd achieved an approval rating of 73%, the highest of any Australian leader in history. Unlike almost all other industrialized economies, Australia avoided recession. Unemployment remained spectacularly low at a healthy 4% to 5% and the government’s fiscal position went from a surplus of 1.6% to a deficit of merely 4.3% when Rudd was ousted. Even when he was removed, Rudd’s approval rating was still a robust 48%.
In many ways, Rudd was a rock-star Prime Minister. Articulate, cerebral and hardworking, Rudd stood out against the dour career politicians that litter the scene. The Mandarin-speaking former diplomat was known for his ability to master his briefs on nearly every major policy issue, as well as his ability to function on four hours’ sleep. In a private conversation in Washington last November, a former senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Rudd as among the world’s most impressive politicians.
Rudd’s ongoing popularity raises questions about Gillard’s legitimacy as Labor leader. As Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott consistently points out, leaders should be elected and deposed by the public and not by the “faceless men” of the governing party. Public sympathy for Rudd is genuine and widespread, confirmed by polls that show Rudd remains the preferred Prime Minister over both the current Prime Minister and opposition leader. Meanwhile, Gillard’s approval rating is a dismal 26%, and continual polling since she took power confirms that the Labor Party would lose in a landslide in an election.
The apparent mystery of Rudd’s downfall is largely explained by the fact that while he is admired from afar, he is widely detested by those working alongside him. It is significant that the ugly airing of dirty laundry in the lead-up to Monday’s leadership spill focused primarily on Rudd’s character and temperament, rather than on his record as Prime Minister or Foreign Minister.
Perhaps Rudd’s problem is that he is his own greatest devotee and softest critic. His limitless self-confidence and belief in the superiority of his intellect is compelling. But from the day he became Prime Minister, colleagues complained that he was abusive, scornful and ill tempered to peers and staff. At the height of his power, entrenched Labor power brokers were mocked and dismissed from his sight whenever they raised complaints about his style. Story after story emerged of Rudd bypassing ministers in making impulsive decisions at a whim, presumably because his was the greatest mind in the government, or simply because he wanted to issue a grandiose press release before the 6 o’clock news. The broadest and most damning of all accusations was that he had contempt for the traditional Cabinet processes of deliberation and policymaking and ran the party and government as if it were his own personal fiefdom.
When he was deposed as Prime Minister in 2010, Rudd did not even contest the party ballot — such was his standing among colleagues. Prior to Monday’s vote, senior ministers from both Rudd and Gillard governments publicly declared that they would rather go to the backbench than serve in a Rudd Cabinet. Although Rudd’s chances of winning the next election, in November 2013, far exceed Gillard’s odds, the Labor Party would perhaps rather lose than have Rudd lead them again.
Is this the end for Rudd? Ambition, ability, persistence and popularity with the public can never be underestimated. Rudd has promised that he will not challenge again but implicitly left open the option of being “drafted” by his colleagues. If Labor under Gillard still faces electoral disaster one year before the 2013 election, then the bookish schoolboy who always sat at the front of the room could be back at the top of his class.