In theory, democracy eventually delivers what and whom the people want as leader. When it comes to the ruling Australian Labor Party, this is no longer the case.
Last week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called a “spill”, meaning that the leadership of the party – and therefore the country—is vacated and reopened for election by the Labor Party caucus. The lead-up involved a two-year rivalry between Ms Gillard and former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who was himself deposed in a party spill in his first term as prime minister in 2010.
As a stunned country watched the ruling party fight an ugly intra-party war, the majority of pundits predicted a Rudd victory—reasoning that his supporters would not have initiated a challenge if they did not have the caucus numbers. With less than 10 minutes left before the vote, Mr Rudd then appeared before the cameras to say that he would not nominate for the party’s leadership on the basis that he would not win the caucus ballot.
With Ms Gillard unopposed and reinstalled as leader, Mr Rudd subsequently declared that he would no longer challenge for the leadership of the party under any circumstances. Thus ends the political ambition of a former prime minister still adored by many in the country—if the polls are to be believed—but reviled by his party.
Mr Rudd’s fall will not make sense to people outside Australia, or to many Australians for that matter. In April 2008, four months after leading the Labor Party to victory against the longstanding conservative Liberal Party led by Mr John Howard, Mr Rudd enjoyed an approval rating of 73 per cent, the highest for any Australian leader in history. Even when he was removed, his approval rating was still a healthy 48 per cent.
While his 2010 ousting surprised the nation, his subsequent failure to regain the leadership of the party against a struggling Gillard prime ministership is even more astonishing. For all but the first two months after the June 2010 general election, the conservative coalition, led by the opposition Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott, has enjoyed an election-winning dominance over Ms Gillard’s Labor Party in the polls.
Importantly, if Mr Rudd were to be reinstalled as prime minister, polls indicate that the Labor Party would return to an even footing with the opposition.
Under Ms Gillard, the Labor Party is tracking to lose half of its 72 seats in the 150-seat Parliament. With the elections scheduled for Sept 14, last week’s spill was seen by Mr Rudd’s supporters as Labor’s last opportunity to avoid electoral disaster and perhaps even nurse hopes of winning.
How are we to understand Mr Rudd’s final failure? He is widely acknowledged as one of the most articulate, hardworking and cerebral leaders Australia has had. The Mandarin-speaking former diplomat was known for his ability to master briefs on nearly every policy issue, all the while functioning on four hours of sleep. Former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton once described Mr Rudd as among the world’s most impressive politicians and a major influence on contemporary American foreign policy in Asia.
Although his achievements during his brief tenure as prime minister are few, his energy for the job was unquestioned and possibly unrivalled. And he presided over an Australian economy that seemingly emerged unscathed from the global financial crisis.
His critics counter that his articulateness and activity personified a leader full of sound and fury but really meant very little when it came to policy substance or outcomes. For example, he called the task to combat climate change “the greatest moral challenge of our time” and then shelved a planned emissions-trading scheme due to declining popularity for it.
More damning for party insiders is that Mr Rudd was abusive, scornful and dismissive of peers and staff from the day he became prime minister in 2007. At the height of his popularity, Labor power-brokers were mocked and brushed aside whenever they complained about his management style. Countless anecdotes emerged about him bypassing his Cabinet colleagues and making impulsive policy decisions tailored for the 6 o’clock news rather than in the national interest. When he was ousted, ministers lined up to condemn a leader who ran the government as if it were his own intellectual playground and fiefdom.
If democratic politics is driven by the iron laws of numbers, as political survival takes precedence over all else, then the party’s response to Mr Rudd has broken the mould. When he challenged his usurper Ms Gillard in an attempt to wrest back the leadership in early 2012 in an internal party spill, he was roundly defeated by 71 votes to 31.
This time, it did not even get to a vote. It is a clear indication that the majority of the Labor caucus would rather die on their feet with Ms Gillard as leader than live on their knees with Mr Rudd. But to an Australian populace still disdainful of a party that removed a leader they voted into office, Mr Rudd’s final assassination is conclusive evidence that the governing Labor Party has little regard for the wishes of the people.
On a two-party preferred basis, the latest poll released earlier this week on Tuesday has the conservative coalition ahead of Labor by a massive 59 per cent to 41 per cent.
Mr Rudd is highly respected by many international peers but loathed by his own colleagues. He has indicated that he will again contest his seat at the Sept 14 election and will probably never truly give up coveting the prize of prime minister. But that avenue is no longer open for him, while a conservative government will likely be installed in September. The likelihood is that his long-term future and influence now lies outside the country he once led.