Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (and, as of three days ago, foreign minister) is busy this weekend working to secure as many votes as possible in the Labor Party leadership contest on Monday morning, called by current Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week.
The latest count, as of Friday, gave Gillard about 60 supporters in the 103-member caucus to just about 30 supporters for Rudd. So why is there such remaining doubt over the contest? Allegiances can change in 48 hours, especially as regards a secret ballot. If Rudd significantly underpeforms, it could well draw a bright line to the infighting that has plagued Labor for the past three years; if he meets or exceeds expectations, don’t believe that this is the end of it.
Somewhat extraordinarily, a sitting prime minister has called a leadership contest as a referendum about her predecessor (and not herself).
Gillard became prime minister in June 2010 when she made clear she would challenge then-Prime Minister Rudd for the leadership. Rudd left then without a vote — 19 months and an intervening general election later (that the Gillard-led Labor Party nearly lost), Labor is now set to take that leadership vote, after weeks of briefing and counterbriefing by both the Rudd and Gillard camps.
Three considerations in particular are driving the narrative here in the face of what looks like a 2-to-1 rout against Rudd:
People power. In a parliamentary system, it’s often the case that a party-wide primary system will result in the somewhat awkward election of a leader less popular with his own caucus than party membership. In this case, MPs have the power to choose their own leader without any input from party rank-and-file and it appears that MPs favor a leader in Gillard who is now much, much less popular with voters, both inside and outside the Labor Party. Furthermore, leading cabinet figures so disproportionately favor Gillard that it is unclear how Rudd could even form a cabinet if he somehow emerged as the new prime minister on Monday.
But the latest polls, even following Rudd’s resignation as foreign minister and Gillard’s announcement of the leadership contest, confirm a hard truth for Gillard: Labor supporters prefer Rudd as Labor party leader (even if they don’t necessarily approve of replacing Gillard), Australian voters prefer Rudd to Coalition leader Tony Abbott as prime minister by nearly 10 points, and Australian voters prefer Abbott to Gillard as prime minister by nearly 10 points. Polls also confirm that Rudd would pull Labor from a potential landslide defeat to something of a dead heat against the Coalition.
Those kinds of numbers will be hard for MPs to ignore as they cast their votes — and Rudd is making the most of it. Fortunes rise and fall precariously in polls, and Rudd has been down in the polls before, but no one can dispute that Rudd has had much more success electorally than Gillard, in both the 2007 and 2010 general elections.
Rudd (pictured above) campaigned among the public in Brisbane to a rockstar welcome Saturday, and he has asked voters to put pressure on MPs to make clear that they heed Rudd’s “people power” as well. In his announcement Friday to contest the leadership, he plainly argued that Gillard has lost the trust of the Australian people and cannot win the next general election:
If we don’t change the Labor Party is going to end up in opposition. We will all end up on the backbench. It is time for a reality check for everybody.
Gillard has countered that leadership contests should not come down to who’s up in the polls at a given moment:
It is a choice about who’s got the strength, the temperament, the character, the courage, to lead this nation, who’s got the ability to get things done even in the face of adversity. This is not an episode of Celebrity Big Brother, this is about who should be prime minister.
The line on Rudd is that he was simply dysfunctional as prime minister — too caught up on the day-to-day battles to focus on long-term progress and too imperious and dictatorial in style and personal demeanor to be an effective head of government. Furthermore, Gillard’s allies say he was the source of leaks against the government during the 2010 general election that nearly caused Labor to lose the election.
What’s so overwhelmingly self-destructive about the current Labor Party civil war is that, regardless of whomever leads Labor to the next general election, the substantive merits to a Labor victory will be overshadowed by genuine questions of whether Labor has demonstrated the maturity to be a ruling party under either Rudd or Gillard (or a third compromise candidate in the future).