Thunder down under .. the fight inside the Labor Party in the Land of Oz ..

Feb 23rd, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

Leadership showdown ... Current Australian Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Photo: Andrew Meares. The Age.

[UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, FEBRUARY 27]. Just under a month ago now, the counterweights editors blogged on “The gathering storm down under .. how much longer can Australia’s Labor government last?

This piece noted “a growing uneasiness about [current Australian Prime Minister] Julia Gillard as Labor government leader. Her regime has been polling below its Liberal/National Coalition rivals since April 2011. And her abrogation of her ‘pokie reform’ agreement with Andrew Wilkie has been spawning such recent headlines as: … ‘Aussie gov’t teeters on precipice after revising pokies pre-commitment plan’ … ’Gillard duds Wilkie, and what’s left of her own credibility’” …  “‘Why [foreign minister Kevin] Rudd’s return is Labor’s only chance of survival’” … and “Why we can’t trust Gillard any more.”

The next big act in this drama is apparently now in motion. Yesterday (and/or today, February 23, as such things are reckoned in the Land of Oz) “Australia’s foreign minister resigned … amid an ongoing leadership squabble, saying he could not continue in his role without the support of Prime Minister Julia Gillard … Kevin Rudd announced his resignation during a news conference in Washington, where he was visiting on official business. The announcement came amid widespread speculation that he planned to seize power from Ms. Gillard.”

Mr. Rudd’s resignation has prompted a very swift reaction from Prime Minister Gillard. Shortly after 10 AM on February 23 (Australian time — again considerably ahead of Canadian time: a full 16 hours in fact), Ms Gillard announced “ALP leadership ballot 10 AM Monday [ie February 27].”  This coming Monday, that is to say, the 103 current Australian Labor Party MPs in Canberra will vote on who they want to carry on as their leader  — Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd. [UPDATE FEBRUARY 27: So the vote is in and Labor Party MPs have overwhelmingly opted for Ms. Gillard, even though opinion polls were strongly in favour of Mr. Rudd.  For more detail click on “Read the rest of this page” and/or scroll down.]

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Parade with 357 bikini-clad women on Australia’s Gold Coast in Queensland.

The very quick deep background here is that, once upon a time, Kevin Rudd (a rare English-speaking politician anywhere who also speaks Mandarin Chinese btw) used to be the Labor prime minister of Australia. But then, back in June 2010, Julia Gillard was “sworn in as Australia’s first female prime minister after a surprise leadership vote in the ruling Labor Party ousted Kevin Rudd.” At that time, “Ms Gillard defended her role in a leadership ambush of Mr  Rudd, saying she did what was best for her party and the country.”

Julia Gillard subsequently “led the party to an inconclusive election in August 2010, but succeeded in forming a minority government with the help of the Greens party and independents … Since then, though, Ms. Gillard’s personal popularity has plummeted, along with that of her party—despite a healthy economy and a mining boom that many analysts describe as a ‘once in a century’ opportunity.” Kevin Rudd’s current argument for replacing (or, as it were, re-replacing) Julia Gillard is that only he can lead Labor to another victory, in an election that the current minority government might have to face sooner than later.

Lifeguards in action at Bondi Beach, Sydney, during glorious Australian summer — from December to February.

The immediate question is just what will happen in the Labor MP caucus vote this coming Monday? There seems little doubt that Kevin Rudd is more popular than Julia Gillard among ordinary voters.  As of 5 PM ET in Canada, February 23, an online poll in The Age from Melbourne, with more than 38,000 respondents, was showing Rudd with 52% to Gillard’s 26% on “Who would you prefer to lead the Labor Party?”

At the same time, there seems equally little doubt that Julia Gillard is more popular among her Labor parliamentary colleagues — the people who will actually be voting on Monday. To quote again from The Age today (or actually tomorrow, in Melbourne): “The victor at the ballot needs a minimum of 52 of the 103 caucus votes … Mr Rudd’s numbers men do not think he can win but believe he needs more than 30 votes to establish a beachhead for another challenge down the track [but see February 24 UPDATE below on this 30 votes point] … The Gillard camp is aware of this and is out to crush Mr Rudd to put an end to the destabilisation once and for all … About 20 of the 30 ministers, including 18 yesterday, have declared their support for Ms Gillard. Only four have declared for Mr Rudd.”

Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott opens Grove Juice factory in Warwick in Queensland, Australia, and shows juggling skills he may find especially useful over the next while in the Land of Oz. Photo: Nathan Richter, Courier-Mail.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott, the leader of Labor’s Liberal/National Coalition rivals, apparently believes that, whoever wins on Monday, his chances of winning the next election will have been increased by the current internal Labor turmoil. And he may be right! (See, eg: “Opposition leader Tony Abbott says an election is the best way out of Labor leadership debacle.”)

Whatever happens, someone at counterweights will be reporting back after Monday’s result. And who knows? It may even be me! Oh, and btw: “Ballot win doesn’t guarantee top job … Constitutional experts warn that even if Kevin Rudd wins the ballot it is far from certain he will become prime minister” — especially in Australia’s current minority federal parliament!

UPDATE FEBRUARY 24: According to an AFP report, as of about 2 AM ET in Canada, Kevin Rudd has now indicated that  “if he lost on Monday he would retire to the backbenches and not take on Gillard again.” And this seems confirmed by a report in The Age, as of 4:51 PM Melbourne time: “Mr Rudd confirmed that if he did not win on Monday, he would give up all leadership ambitions … ‘I would go to the backbench and I will not challenge Julia a second time,’ he said.”

This would seem to cancel out the earlier notion that if Mr Rudd can get at least 30 votes on Monday he can establish a beachhead for another challenge down the track. And according to the most recent calculations in “Gillard v Rudd: the numbers” there seems very little chance that Mr. Rudd can actually defeat Ms. Gillard as early as this coming Monday. Presumably, however, nothing is dead certain until the actual vote on Monday! So stay tuned.

UPDATE FEBRUARY 27: As it happened, there actually was  “very little chance that Mr. Rudd can actually defeat Ms. Gillard as early as this coming Monday.” See: Labor seeks to heal itself … After trouncing Mr Rudd 71-31 in the leadership vote, Ms Gillard sought to draw a line under the extraordinary bloodletting of the last week, declaring ‘Australians have had a gutful of seeing us focus on ourselves’’.”

And see as well: “Will of the people fails to sway caucus … Labor has overwhelmingly endorsed the candidate of the unions and the party machine over the candidate of the people … For a political party that has been super-sensitive to opinion polls in the past, it was a remarkable rejection of the public will … The people consistently prefer Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard as Labor leader by a factor of about two to one. But Labor has gone the other way by a factor of more than two to one. For a party that is on a steady trajectory to electoral defeat, it was an extraordinary act of steely resolve. Or suicidal madness.”

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