In one of the wildest 72 hours in backroom politics in Australia’s history (which is saying something), Kevin Rudd has been deposed as leader of the Labour Party, and Julia Gillard has taken the helm as the nation’s first female Prime Minister.
The news has shocked the nation and many political insiders as well. While it was no secret Rudd’s popularity had been falling drastically in the polls, no one officially predicted such a leadership spill, and certainly not so suddenly or so decisively.
Only a year ago, Rudd’s approval ratings seemed rock solid and many pundits described him as unbeatable. Of course, twelve months is a very long time in politics. Still, his ousting is historic in itself, as a stellar example of a falling star.
His response to the World Economic Crisis was seen as satisfactory. His experience in foreign affairs and fluency in Mandarin pleased many who hoped to see Australia have a stronger international presence, and definitely more prestige and influence in the larger Asian region. What brought him undone?
His greatest faux pas has been a perceived abandonment of the hard line and forward thinking climate change legislation that he rode to electoral victory on. The public doesn’t like broken promises, especially when they are big broken promises.
His most recent millstone was a proposed tax on the boom profits of the mining industry. It got the rich mining companies upset and the public confused when the numbers didn’t seem to add up.
Naturally, he faced other hiccups along the way. But few leaders have ever been seen as such a liability, so relatively quickly, without having a major catastrophe or personal morality incident.
The Opposition Party he has faced off against has been inept at best, and virtually in constant disarray themselves since the election, with turnovers in their leadership that screamed disunity and confusion to the public. It can hardly be said that they played any role of consequence in getting him knocked off.
Nor can it be said, despite the history making aspect of the country’s first female leader, that the startling developments have anything to do with gender. A much repeated stand-up comedy line goes, “I didn’t know Julia Gillard was a woman.”
In my view, Gillard was Deputy and the Labour Party wanted Rudd out. Period. More about her in a minute.
It seems to me that no one failing or political decision brought Rudd down. Even the disappointment and anger over the climate change flip-flop can’t account for his tumble in the ratings. This was a seasoned politician who experts predicted would be in power for years to come. Now the wires are running hot with speculation and analysis of just what broke down. I don’t think the answer is going to be easy to find. In some crucial sense, it’s no more mysterious than the public losing interest in him. The luster wore off. While he wasn’t blamed for the financial turmoil of the last year, he hasn’t been seen to have the solutions either. Almost every major category of consumer purchases has seen heavy price hikes. People are doing it harder these days, and they need someone to be held accountable. In the words of President Obama regarding the BP debacle, they want an “ass to kick.”
But of course the voters weren’t the ones to kick Mr. Rudd out. It was his own party, behind a closed door. One of the little niceties allowed in the Westminster System. It may be that his career is over because he simply didn’t do enough politicking with his own team mates. So, out came the knives.
To be sure, Labour will now call for an election just as soon as they are allowed under law to do so. They can’t let a Prime Minister who has taken power within the party stand in office very long without the public approval of an electoral victory. Especially not the first female PM in history. They will also want to move fast while the Liberal Party is still in a volatile, rumpled state itself.
The result will be a bitter policy-free campaign that offers two choices in leadership personalities, despite the fact that the nation has just witnessed how fragile the personal aspect can be!
I wish I could express some enthusiasm for Julia Gillard as the country’s new head. But I can’t.
She was born in Wales and came to Australia as a child. Her background is as a trade unionist lawyer. She cut her teeth in that field working for a tough industrial law firm called Slater & Gordon (known colloquially as Slug ’em & Grab ’em).
Her mindset is very much back in the 1960s when there was a sharp divide between workers and big business management. Today, Australia, like many other Western countries is a totally different place. 75% of all Australians are employed by small business-and 75% of all new small businesses fail within the first three years.
As in America, where there is government assistance for (and collusion with) those enterprises “too big to fail” and failing spectacularly, no political party in Australia has offered any real vision or tangible support for small business. I think it can be reasonably argued that in no technologized country on the planet, is it more difficult to launch a small business than in Australia.
Julia Gillard is one committed to making things more difficult still. She will further retard initiative at the smaller levels and undermine business and economic confidence at large. She also brings no foreign affairs experience to her new job, and indeed seems to have a very strange perspective of Australia in the world.
I’m all in favor of women taking leadership roles. Particularly capable ones. There’s no question that Gillard is a capable politician. She pulled off a backroom decapitation. It remains to be seen if she is any real kind of leader, and what policies I’ve seen her champion so far in her career suggest a desire to turn back the clock, not to move forward with vision and innovation.