Gillard v. Rudd: The Fight to Lead a Tattered Labor Party
February 24, 2012
A stunned Australian electorate has looked on as long-simmering internal divisions surfaced between the leaders of the incumbent Labor Party, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former foreign minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd resigned as foreign minister during a 1:00 a.m. press conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Gillard responded by setting an election for the party leadership for Monday at 10:00 a.m. in Canberra. That leaves her rival with just three days and a scorching case of jet lag to rally support to his cause.
The winner of Monday’s vote will lead a tattered Labor Party to take on the opposition Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott. Either Gillard or Rudd would need to set a general election date quickly to support the formation of a government.
Q1: Who is Kevin Rudd?
A1: Kevin Rudd brought the Australian Labor Party to a landslide electoral victory in 2007 against the incumbent Liberal Party. However, only 20 months into his tenure as Australia’s prime minister, his popularity waned considerably as the result of a series of controversial initiatives, including a deeply unpopular Resource Super Profits Tax that threatened to break the country’s mining boom. His “chaotic leadership style”—he is described by some as an egotistic micromanager who is “impossible to staff”—opened him to criticism and undercut his leadership. In a dramatic turn of events, Rudd faced a coup within his own party; knowing that he would lose any formal leadership challenge from Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Rudd resigned. He then rejoined the front bench as foreign minister following the Labor Party’s 2010 victory—a testament to his experience in the Australian foreign service, the Australian people’s sympathy following the party coup, and Gillard’s need to secure his vote in order to form a government.
Q2: Why did Rudd resign?
A2: Rudd resigned in the wee hours of the morning on February 22 during an official visit to Washington, D.C. Insiders say he took part in the unorthodox ceremony of resigning from a Washington hotel because of seemingly credible rumors that Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her cabinet were moving on his dismissal. In the resignation speech and letter released to the press, he claimed that “faceless men” were publicly attacking his integrity and calling for his dismissal. Because the prime minister did not defend him, he assumed that she no longer had confidence in him as foreign minister, and therefore, he was obliged to resign. Gillard’s response has been one of disappointment that Rudd did not raise the issue with her before going to the press. Since the 2010 coup within the Labor Party, the Rudd-Gillard relationship has been messy. There have been numerous accusations from Labor Party members that Rudd attempted to sabotage Gillard’s 2010 campaign, and no one can doubt that Rudd holds a grudge for losing the country’s top job.
With such continuous animosity, one may question why Rudd would choose to resign now, midway through an overseas tour. The answer is that there is an opportunity for him to seize Labor Party, and indeed national, leadership. Despite overseeing legislative and economic success, the Australian public has been increasingly critical of Gillard because of her leading role in the 2010 coup against Rudd. This sentiment is reflected in the most recent Nielsen poll indicating that 57 percent of voters would prefer Rudd as Labor leader. The Labor party is sharply divided; on the one hand, the party itself favors Gillard’s leadership style, and yet, on the other, the Australian people appear to have chosen the more sympathetic Rudd. Instead of being dismissed by the prime minister, he has decided to seize the agenda and leave his position on what appears to be the moral high ground. With the Labor leadership crisis coming to a head, Rudd has resigned to return to Australia in order to rally support for a leadership challenge.
Q3: What are the implications of his resignation for the Labor government?
A3: There are two major implications of Rudd’s resignation. First, Gillard announced on February 23 that a ballot will be held Monday, February 27, at 10:00 a.m. in Canberra to settle the party’s leadership dispute once and for all. To win the ballot, a candidate needs a minimum of 52 votes. According to The Australian, the latest poll of Labor members of Parliament (MPs) shows the 65 support Gillard, 31 will vote for Rudd, and 7 remain undecided. Although most news sources appear to agree that Gillard has the upper hand in this ballot, if Rudd plays his cards right, the situation for the Gillard government will be dire regardless of its outcome. Rudd only needs to get enough votes to damage Gillard’s credibility within the party, leaving him as the only viable option to defeat Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott. In addition, Rudd holds a wild card that he could use as leverage within the party: he could resign from his seat in Parliament and force a by-election that may bring the opposition to power, as the Labor coalition’s hold on power is so fragile it hinges on just two seats in Parliament.
Second, the overall effect of the leadership squabble has been a decline in the Australian Labor Party’s popularity, with the latest polls estimating that the coalition could no longer win an election outright. As Abbott aptly remarked, the unfolding drama over the past few weeks has been a “poisonous soap opera” that has led most Australians to lose faith in their government. As it was, Labor only had a two-seat majority that was achieved by courting the “independent” MPs. These independents have already begun to disassociate themselves from Labor’s infighting.
Q4: How does the political infighting impact the U.S.-Australia alliance?
A4: The United States and Australia are heading into their 61st year as alliance partners, and over the course of those years, Australian foreign policy has been characterized by a remarkable degree of consensus and stability in its approach to the United States. Consequently, one should expect that a change in leadership would not alter the outlook for Australia-U.S. relations. To illustrate this point, in examining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) one can expect Australia to still be a major proponent no matter what form its leadership will take. Julia Gillard’s policy has clearly been to promote the agreement, a course that was an expansion of the free trade initiatives that Rudd proposed in 2008 when he was prime minister. Moreover, if an election is called and the opposition coalition succeeds, Abbott, who is ideologically a free trade proponent, would also be unlikely to oppose the TPP. Gillard, Rudd, or Abbott would all support the decision to provide the United States access to naval bases in Western Australia.
Q5: Will Australia’s foreign policy be impacted?
A5: No matter whether Gillard, Rudd, or opposition leader Abbott come out on top in the political wrangling, Australia’s foreign policy and engagement in key Asia-Pacific institutions such as the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum will remain fairly consistent. Policies toward climate change, managing refugees, and trade opening would also remain relatively consistent.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Elke Larsen is a researcher with the CSIS Pacific Partners Initiative.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.