LIVE BLOG: Labor Party leadership spill in Australia

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UPDATE: Kevin Rudd has not challenged prime minister Julia Gillard, and Australia’s Labor Party leader will continue in that role after winning a snap leadership spill.

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What a day in Australia!Australia Flag Icon

Simon Crean (pictured above), Australia’s minister for arts and regions, a former leader of the Australian Labor Party from 2001 to 2003, and a member of the Australia House of Representatives, has called for Australian prime minister Julia Gillard to call a leadership contest — known as a spill in Australian politics in a day that saw Gillard avoid a vote of no confidence by just a handful of votes after it was called by the opposition leader, Tony Abbott.

Gillard responded by calling a spill at 4:30 p.m. Sydney time (1:30 a.m. Washington DC time), taunting her rivals, ‘Give me your best shot.’

Crean has been relieved of his duties as a minister, and it’s unknown whether Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister and former foreign minister.

Gillard ejected Rudd as leader in 2010 after the Labor Party found his leadership to be dysfunctional and erratic before nearly losing the 2010 election to Abbott and the Coalition.

Rudd, who served as Gillard’s foreign minister, declared himself a candidate for the Labor leadership in February 2012, but lost that vote 71 to 31, and Gillard promptly sacked him from her cabinet.

The latest Morgan poll in Australia shows that the Coalition (Liberal/National) would win the next Australian election with 54.5% of the vote to just 45.5% for Gillard’s Labor Party.  Recent polls show that Rudd is by far the favorite among Australians to lead Labor, and polls show that a Rudd-led Labor would win the election.

The current election is scheduled for September 14.

So Gillard’s leadership has been under pressure for some time, especially after Labor lost ground in the recent state elections in Western Australia.

12:39 a.m.: No word yet on whether Rudd will even contest the spill, but it seems certain that such a sudden leadership spill won’t settle anything, especially if Rudd wins more than the 31 votes that he won 13 months ago.

12:46 a.m.: Wayne Swan, Gillard’s deputy prime minister and Australia’s treasurer, will support Gillard.  No surprise there.

12:50 a.m.: It’s hard to see how Labor can win from this spill unless Rudd somehow wins overwhelmingly, which seems unlikely on three hours’ notice for a leadership election.  If Gillard wins overwhelmingly, she’ll still be a leader who remains less popular than the predecessor that she herself toppled in a coup; if she wins with less than impressive support, the calls for another vote will certainly grow louder.  The winner today is the Coalition and Abbott.

12:52 a.m.: Find all of my past coverage of Australian politics here.

12:53 a.m.: No word yet (still!) as to whether Rudd will challenge for the leadership.  He pledged after his leadership spill loss in February 2012 not to challenge again for the leadership until after the next election.

12:55 a.m.: Interestingly enough, Rudd won the leadership in 2006 after his own coup against the leader from 2005 to 2006, Kim Beazley, who retired from politics in 2007 and has served as Australia’s ambassador to the United States since 2010.

12:57 a.m.: Bob Carr, the current foreign minister, is in the United States (interestingly, so was Rudd, serving as foreign minister, when the last leadership spill was called) so there are only 101 Labor MPs today.  That means that Gillard — or Rudd — will need 51 votes to win.  No word as to whether Carr supports Gillard or Rudd, though.

1:00 a.m.: According to the Sydney Morning Herald, about 20 Australian MPs are in Rudd’s office calling on him to run in the leadership spill set for 30 minutes from now.

1:01 a.m.: Gillard’s not the only party leader who is less popular than her predecessor.  Abbott remains relatively unpopular among Australians generally, less popular than his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, who was leader of the Coalition from September 2008 to December 2009.  In contrast to Labor, however, Turnbull has not briefed against Abbott in the way that Rudd and his allies have briefed against Gillard.

1:06 a.m.: Meredith Burgmann, a Labor politician from New South Wales, on Australian Broadcasting Corporation: ‘Like hanging, it focuses the mind.’ Notes that Rudd was the original leader that Australians voted for — ‘Kevin in ’07.’  Predicts a Rudd victory in just under 30 minutes.

1:09 a.m.: Note that Crean called for — and Gillard conceded to — a spill for the deputy leadership as well, and Crean offered to stand for the deputy leadership.  So Swan’s position is also on the line as well.

1:11 a.m.: If for some reason Rudd doesn’t stand, one of the MPs who’s been mooted as a third candidate, a compromise between Gillard and Rudd, is Bill Shorten, the current employment minister.  But no word yet if he will stand or if Rudd will stand.

1:14 a.m.: No matter who wins, will the prime minister bring the election forward from September 14?  It seems toxic to spend the next six months of Australian politics in this death spiral for the Gillard government, no?

1:20 a.m.: Rudd will not stand, citing his promise in February 2012, the fact that the leadership is not vacant, and that no one has drafted him, despite Crean’s call, “Therefore, in the absence of any such draft… I will be adhering absolutely to the commitment I gave.”

1:23 a.m.: Remains to be seen if anyone will challenge Gillard at this point.  It seems pretty unlikely that Gillard’s troubles will end now, given that it seems very likely that Rudd’s backers will still be pushing him until the election comes.

1:25 a.m.: Anthony Albanese, leader of the Australian House of Representatives, and minister for infrastructure and transport, says that Rudd has made the right decision.  Albanese supported Rudd for the leadership in February 2012.

1:27 a.m.: Independent MP Bob Katter, who voted against Gillard in the vote of no confidence earlier today, reiterated earlier that he would consider switching from opposition to Labor if Rudd leads the government.

1:29 a.m.: It may well be a brilliant move by the Gillard campaign to hold a snap vote within three hours of Crean’s challenge.  If Crean wasn’t put up to this by the Rudd partisans, and caught Rudd and his backers off guard, it may well have been to Gillard’s benefit.  Maybe Crean’s stunt was something that the Gillard forces engineered?  Who knows.  Rudd’s decision not to stand saves his powder for yet another leadership spill between now and September 2013.  Or, say, after September, when Abbott becomes prime minister and Labor is looking for a new leader yet again.

1:34 a.m.: Australia’s Labor MPs are in caucus now.  We’ll see what happens — Gillard is the only candidate, as far as we know.  But even if she wins the spill today, there’s no guarantee that she’ll silence the doubts over the next six months.

1:43 a.m.: Gillard is now in caucus, and so there’s nothing to report for now.  It’s worth taking a moment to review the accomplishments of Gillard’s government.  It has passed a carbon tax of 23 Australian dollars per ton.  The government also passed a mining tax, though it’s raised much, much less revenue than expected.

1:46 a.m.: Gillard and Swan were the only nominations, it’s been announced.  No one opposed them, and they’ve been duly reelected as leader and deputy leader, respectively.

1:49 a.m.: Media pose question to Labor MP Chris Hayes: ‘The point is, there was no show of strength for the prime minster today, was there?’ ‘What if the polls get worse?’ This isn’t over.

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2:11 a.m.: Gillard (pictured above just moments ago leaving Labor’s caucus), fresh off winning her leadership spill, is expected to speak shortly.

2:16 a.m.: ‘I accept their continuing support of me as prime minister and Labor leader,’ Gillard says. ‘I have only ever sought office in the interests of the nation.’

2:17 a.m.: Claims the Labor leadership is settled. ‘The whole business is completely at an end. It has ended now.’ Turns to Swan.

2:19 a.m.: A very short statement by Gillard and Swan.  The budget is due in six or seven weeks, then it’s less than five months to the general election. Though Rudd remains likely the most popular politician in Australia, he seems unlikely to challenge for the Labor leadership so long as Gillard retains it.

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2:32 a.m.: Abbott (pictured above) argues that the Coalition is ready to deliver a strong government: ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’  Nothing is resolved as long as Gillard and Rudd are in parliament to carry on their civil war.  The only thing that can solve the problem is an immediate election — if she were less concerned about herself, there would be an election now.  Gillard doesn’t deserve to stay in power, circus will go on.

Photo credit to Alex Ellinghausen.

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