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Australia gets its first female prime minister, dumps PM Rudd

It’s an astonishing day in Australian politics. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has been a loyal supporter and ally of President Obama, was dumped by his Labor Party today, and Julia Gillard, the deputy prime minister, was chosen as party leader in his place. She will become the new Australian prime minister, the first woman to lead the nation.

In the end, there wasn’t even a vote at the party’s parliamentary caucus meeting. Rudd bowed out before a vote, knowing Gillard was about to rout him. Rudd is only the second prime minister to be pushed out by his own party, and he is the first to be forced out in his first term. Gillard is a canny spokesman for her party, which saw her as a stronger leader for elections that will be held later this year. Under Rudd, she was the government’s leading spokesman on a broad range of domestic issues, notably education and employment, and was a nearly constant media presence. (I’ve written about her over the years; click here and here.)

Rudd’s downfall was astonishing, given his broad victory in 2007 that in some ways prefigured Obama’s a year later. Rudd’s appeal was especially strong to younger voters, and at his peak the surveys showed he was the most popular prime minister in Australia’s history. But he had dropped sharply in the surveys this year after abandoning his commitment to a cap-and-trade program -- this alienated his younger and greener supporters -- and in the wake of a bitter fight with industry over a mining profits tax. But the core factors in his defeat were the party’s fears that it would lose this year’s election if Rudd stayed on and his lack of any deep affection among Labor parliamentarians who complained that he failed to consult with them on key matters.

Rudd’s fall eerily resembled his rise. He won the Labor leadership by ousting Kim Beazly (now Australia’s ambassador to the United States), who led the party off-and-on for many years. The party chose Rudd and Gillard as a team, seeing them as more likely to prevail in the 2007 election. This time, Gillard won over Rudd, again for reasons rooted in the party’s electoral concerns. Her deputy prime minister will be Wayne Swan, a longtime friend of Beazley’s.

This morning in Australian (Wednesday night here), Gillard made her first public appearance as leader, a smooth performance in which she balanced graciousness to Rudd with a pledge to change just enough to put her party right with the voters again.

She called Rudd “a man of remarkable achievement… who saw us through the global financial crisis.” Noting that Australia had “the lowest debt, the lowest unemployment rate and the highest growth among the world’s economies,” she praised Rudd “for leading the nation in difficult times and keeping people in work.” There was speculation that because he didn’t challenge Gillard, Rudd might secure the job of foreign minister in her government. But she dodged a question on this from a reporter. “Step at a time, step at a time,” she said.

She walked a careful line in explaining why she had taken on Rudd while also defending the very government in which she had served -- and whose record will soon be judged by the voters. She made her challenge, she said, because “a good government was losing its way” and because “the Rudd government did not do all it said it would do, and at times it went off track.”

She said she would enter into negotiations with the mining companies on the new tax, clearly seeking a truce in the war between the companies and the government that has involved heavy advertising on both sides. She pointedly said the government would end its advertising in favor of the tax and called on the companies to pull their ads attacking the government. And she sent a message to her colleagues and implicitly promised a new style by explaining that that leadership involved “mutual respect shared by colleagues.

On the issue the world will be talking about, she said: “I am well aware that I am the first woman to play this role, but I didn’t rush about to crash any glass ceilings.” She said with a laugh that she might also be the first red-headed prime minister.

My hunch is that Obama will miss Rudd, who was strongly pro-American, tough in dealing with China and shrewd in his understanding of the global economy. An Australian friend wondered, only partly in jest, if Rudd might have survived if Obama, who is popular in Australia, had made a visit in which he would likely have embraced Rudd. Obama had to cancel trips to Australia twice, first when he was in the midst of the final push for health care and then because of the gulf oil spill. But Gillard’s views are broadly similar to Rudd’s, and her rise is unlikely to mean any large changes in foreign policy.

The second unhappiest person in Australia (after Rudd) is probably Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative opposition -- a coalition of the Liberal and National Parties. Abbott had made great strides against Rudd and Labor in recent months. Gillard may well stop that advance, and that is why her colleagues have pushed her out front.

By E.J. Dionne  | June 23, 2010; 11:18 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Comments

E.J.

Overall, a good piece but I have to correct one error. It is not correct that, at his peak, Rudd became the most popular prime minister in our country's history; that honour is and remains with another Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke. Rudd did, however, come within a whisker of equalling Bob Hawke's record personal approval rating.

Cheers

Posted by: paulromas | June 24, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Kevin Rudd was a great leader. His achievements in initiating reforms in education, health and the well-being of indigenous people will have a lasting impactin his nation. He made the most of Australia's economic stability to steer it through the GFC in such a way that it actually avoided recession.

Kevin Rudd proved himself to be intelligent, exceptionally knowledgable, articulate and incredibly hard-working.

He understood China like no other western leader in history, and was able to challenge the Chinese on human rights, in their own tongue. He worked relentlessly and tirelessly at Copenhagen to try to broker a deal between leaders of far more powerful nations.

A unique leader has been lost.

Posted by: scottdon | June 24, 2010 9:10 PM | Report abuse

This is a fine article on the essentials.
My guess is that Julia Gillard will get on very well with Mr Obama, just as Kevin Rudd did. She is extremely bright, and she has been much more involved for many years with grass roots folk--especially the disadvantaged--than he was. Her push in Education, in which I've been deeply involved for close to 50 years, starting at Harvard, is the most informed one I've seen federally in 44 years in Australia.

Posted by: susanreibelmoore | June 25, 2010 12:57 AM | Report abuse

Kevin Rudd would make a fascinating study in the effect that power can have on personality. Rudd, a career diplomat before entering politics, is reported to have advanced politically through a combination of clear thinking, diplomatic skill and punishingly hard work: all characteristics that were and are respected by Australians.

Once he assumed office, he was confronted by the GFC challenge, which he successfully navigated, although largely as a result of the incredibly strong fiscal and economic position his Labor government inherited in late 2007 from the preceding Liberal/Nationals Coalition government led by former PM John Howard and former Treasurer Peter Costello.

Rudd was very impressed with his (Rudd's) work in response to the GFC, and this success inflated Rudd's opinion of his own capability, which has been described (by friends and enemies alike) as extraordinarily high in the first place.

This exacerbation of what was already one of Rudd's character failings led Rudd to make the extraordinarily stupid decision to announce (without consulting the mining industry or any of his other Ministers other than Treasurer Wayne Swan) what he termed a "Resources Super Profits Tax". Without going into any details, it is more accurately described by the mining industry and a number of respected economists as a "Resources Profits Super Tax".

In any event, a stupid policy, poorly executed. However, because Rudd is convinced that he is by far the smartest person in the room -- any room -- he refused to back down even when the damage to Australia and its economy (which is heavily dependent on mining) was manifest.

Australians rightly perceived this as arrogance of a high order, and Rudd's approval ratings plummeted accordingly. After that, it was only a matter of time before he was shown the door.

Other commenters here have suggested that Rudd was a rare and great leader. He (and sometimes he and his government) did manage to achieve some good things during his short period in office, but Rudd let the power go to his head with a speed and to a degree rarely seen in western democracies. Australia is well shut of him.

Posted by: Iceman3 | June 25, 2010 3:59 AM | Report abuse

Iceman,

The Howard government can be grateful to the Hawke and Keating Labor governments for bequeathing it a good economy. An economy which, in 1996, was in its fifth year of growth, with falling unemployment, falling interest rates and record low inflation.

The economy Howard left for Rudd was one with interest rates and inflation higher than when he first came to power in 1996, recurrent government spending at a 16 year high and a budget with a worsening structural deficit, on account of his government's wasteful, non-means-tested, middle class welfare and pork barrelling.

The resources super profits tax is accurately described as a tax on the super profits made by mining companies for exporting the (highly demanded) mineral wealth of our nation, which can only be removed from the ground and sold once. It is a good policy, which will see Australians get a fairer share of the wealth from minerals we all own and which, as a matter of fact, the mining industry agrees with in principle.

The miners are afraid because Australia was the first nation in the world to introduce a petroleum resource rent tax back in 1986 and the rest of the world followed our lead then; the miners don't want us to set another trend for the rest of the world to follow, again.

Posted by: paulromas | June 25, 2010 5:26 AM | Report abuse

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