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For those uncognisant, there has been continual speculation about whether Julia Gillard will challenge Kevin Rudd ever since his falling poll numbers leading up to the next election. For the more observant, people will have noted that this speculation never got traction because Julia Gillard consistently and trenchantly refused to accept it. This goes all the way back to when she first supported Rudd to be Leader of the Opposition, rather than throwing her own hat into the ring when she probably had the numbers to be LOOP in her own right. And it goes all the way to the last minute, last night when Gillard adamantly refused to stand as Labor leader.

Yes, yes, people will say “but leadership contenders always have the leader’s back”. That’s right – they always say it, but never mean it. But I think journalists can really sense the difference between mere words and substantive action. With Costello for instance, even though he may not have genuinely wanted the leadership, had a strong support base that constantly undermined Howard’s leadership behind closed doors. As Virgil said, Rumour has a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths and a voice of iron. And yet, not a single rumour appeared of Gillard’s behind the scene moves to take the leadership. The Sun Herald was confident enough to make its front page story that there was absolutely no support for Julia Gillard. The Opposition even stopped their attacks. And that is precisely why Gillard’s sudden leadership challenge was so very surprising. This is a leadership challenge unlike every other – even though there was speculation, no one truly believed that speculation because there was little basis for it aside from Rudd’s poor polling numbers.

The most recent bout of speculation began when NSW right-wing power broker, Mark Arbib, sent a delegation to Victorian right-wing power broker, David Feeney, and also when Bob Hawke was overheard asking if there was a possibility Gillard would be asked to stand. It came to a head because of an own goal by Rudd. He asked his Chief of Staff, Alister Jordan, to find out what support Gillard had.

This backfired for two crucial reasons. Firstly, the pact that Rudd and Gillard made had been broken. Rudd had openly questioned her loyalty, when Gillard herself (reportedly) believed she had done everything in public and behind closed doors to support him. Gillard has had a strong record of supporting Labor leaders to the very end – Simon Crean, Mark Latham. But this angered her enough to request a meeting between her, Rudd and senior (left) wise owl John Faulkner. Secondly, Rudd’s approach of delegating this very important task of canvassing votes to his own office, rather than to a powerbroker or doing it himself really pissed off the Parliamentary Labor Party. It was always his style – but it was that very thing for which he had been criticised the last few weeks – running all policy through his office rather than through Cabinet or through government departments.

I say all this, because the first and most important theme that I am picking up from this whole debacle is the honesty and loyalty which is the hallmark of Gillard’s challenge. I don’t know if Gillard was genuine in that loyalty – but everything I am getting from the media is that she hid it very well. But if she was hiding it – she was playing a very long game – from as early on as when Rudd was first nominated for the Labor leadership (and perhaps even as far back as Simon Crean). For myself, I suspect Gillard is honest. If even Mark Latham could speak so highly of Gillard’s integrity, I think she is truly a good person.

This theme of loyalty to the end, I think is crucial, to how this will all play out in the lead up to the election later this year. This is very different from other leadership spills in recent history. Other spills always involve a heated and contentious battle between an ambitious deputy and a incumbent leader. It is a battle of two opposing forces. But this was a matter of the leader’s forces switching sides to a reluctant deputy.

Some are of the view that this leadership spill was unnecessary – that Rudd would have won the next election and this is just a distraction, that this will break the Government’s plan. I respectfully, but very strongly disagree. Firstly, the government’s momentum was disrupted after the ETS back down. The momentum was absolutely destroyed by the Mining Tax, an issue that would not have gone away. This leadership spill actually acts as a circuit-breaker that will heal that disruption.

Secondly, a leadership challenge is only disruptive if the new leader wobbles or if the old leader acts as a Fourth Column. The latter seems unlikely to happen. By his actions and his general contempt for the rest of Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labor Party, Rudd has lost many friends within the Party. He never had a factional base – as the commentariat reiterated time and again, he had support only as long as the polls supported him. He has no chance of coming back. He seems to recognise this by his (reportedly) gracious speech to Caucus and by choosing to stand aside rather than to challenge the spill.

Rudd fired a warning shot yesterday night that Australia would shift to the Right under Gillard, but the Australian at least has interpreted that as a pitch that he would be the left-wing candidate rather than an attempt to undermine the future Gillard Prime Ministry. In any leadership spill, there will be some robust argumentation. Even if that was an attempt to undermine Gillard, by any standard it was a pretty weak attempt. Nothing is a certainty of course. Rudd has become used to being in charge, and I think he never liked the job of selling his own policies. He just wanted to craft them. I think he’ll try to keep some role in policy making. Whether he can stomach a secondary role, is a different question. But watching his farewell speech, you can really see into his character and into that compassion that has always driven him. I don’t think I can see it in him to undermine his government, whose policies he believes so strongly in.

Look, attempting to predict the future is always difficult in politics. But Gillard, as everyone has been announcing ad nauseam is an excellent communicator. But, like Rudd, she is an excellent administrator. She has handled two major portfolios with great skill – deflecting two major controversies (Naplan testing and flaws in the Education Building revolution). And she has shown particular skill in tackling Tony Abbott himself. I think Gillard is not only the best person to take Labor into the election, I think she will win the next election.

Gillard has a strong political argument to undo some of the errors that the Rudd government has made. Perhaps there’s no substance behind that argument because she was a member of the ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ of four. The Coalition will certainly argue that, but Ministers are always responsible for past policies. What matters is that she can dump those policies and move on. There will be criticisms for perhaps a few weeks, but those criticisms will not linger. They will be swamped by the even bigger news of a new government and of her media honeymoon.

There’s good reason to think a Gillard government will be different in substance by a Rudd government. It will no longer function as a government of four – insider reports suggest that Rudd was still resisting allowing Cabinet having a say in the decision making process, but that Gillard was willing to shift back.

The King is dead, long live the Queen. For what little its worth, I give my congratulations to Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister. And I give my thanks to Kevin Rudd who, with great skill, shepherded Australia through the Global Financial Crisis, who ratified the Kyoto Protocol, apologised to the Aboriginal people, withdrew from Iraq but reinforced our forces in Afghanistan.


One Comment

  1. As you know I respectfully disagree. Media narrative: ALP ahead 52-48 “Rudd in free fall”, ALP ahead 52-48 “Gillard saves Labor”. Wtf.

    The RSPT gave Rudd something to “stand for” just like the GST gave Howard something to stand for, and even though it may not have been popular it was not going to lose them the election. It also gave Rudd something to fight for given their deferral of the ETS (notwithstanding the fact that it is good but hardly radical policy)

    People like to be snarky about the language he occassionally adopted but Rudd was also a good communicator: witness his speech on Wednesday night, his valedictory on Thursday morning, and almost anything he did during 2007.

    I might take advantage of the feelgoodia and plonk some money on a Coalition victory as it blows out to $4 on the betting markets.

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