Ed Miliband, like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair before him, has his party critics. But in comparison to the continuing chaos at the top of the Australian Labor Party, he can enjoy a quiet smile of satisfaction.
For last week, the simmering tensions and party-infighting which dominated the headlines on my visit back home, finally came to a head. It left Australia’s governing party with the unedifying choice between a charismatic former leader who apparently lacks competence and a competent prime minister that apparently lacks the trust of her people.
The contest was sparked by Kevin Rudd’s dramatic resignation as foreign minister while on state visit to Washington DC. Rudd, who was himself forced to resign as prime minister in the face of Julia Gillard’s successful campaign to replace him in 2010, now saw the chance to do the same to her.
Gillard wasted no time in making sure history would not repeat itself, calling an immediate leadership ballot. One after another, senior Government ministers that served in both their cabinets lined up to discredit Rudd’s leadership qualities, many declaring they would resign if he became prime minister again.
His one-time closest ally and current Treasurer Wayne Swan described life under Rudd’s leadership as “dysfunctional, Labor MP Steve Gibbons who called him a “psychopath with a giant ego” and Gillard herself said Rudd ran a “chaotic” government. But while a number of key Labor power-brokers were busy destroying Rudd’s credibility, his popularly among the voters remained sky high.
According to a recent Newspoll survey, Rudd maintains a solid 20 per cent lead over Gillard as preferred prime minister. Conscious of the fact that he lacked the support of a majority of his caucus colleagues, Rudd appealed directly to the public in the days before the leadership ballot asking them to contact their local MP to voice their concerns about the current Government.
“Rightly or wrongly, Julia has lost the trust of the Australian people… I want to finish the job the Australian people elected me to do when I was elected by them to become prime minister”, Rudd said.
The party faced a great dilemma. On the one side was the man that lead a “chaotic” government but was popular, and on the other a lady that leads a relatively popular government but remains very unpopular as prime minister.
While Gillard won the leadership ballot 71 votes to Rudd’s 31, Labor would most likely lose an election if it were called now.
After the ballot Rudd vowed never to challenge for the leadership again and to work for his local electorate of Griffith in Queensland. Gillard, boosted by the strong support of her colleagues, pledged that she wanted to end the drama of recent weeks and get on with the job of prime minister. But with Kevin Rudd now relegated to the back bench, few believe this is the end of his leadership ambitions.
Today Gillard officially announced her secret weapon, the man who would replace Rudd as foreign minister. Widely respected former Labor premiere for New South Wales, Bob Carr – who resigned from politics in 2005 – confirmed that he would take Rudd’s place and fulfil his boyhood dream of becoming foreign minister. In what was one of the worst kept secrets of the last week, Carr’s appointment will no doubt give Gillard’s popularity a boost and give her cabinet a much-needed seniority.
Gillard’s task from here on will be tough. If her party is to win next year’s election she needs to make the Australian public believe she is more than just an over-rehearsed robot; address the perception that Labor is ruled by ‘faceless men’ that ruthlessly dispose of leaders, and champion the genuine achievements of her government against the constant onslaught of rhetoric from Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott.
Matt Walker is an Account Executive at Portland from Melbourne, Australia. He tweets in personal capacity at @walkerswalking