Gillard v Rudd: understanding this fight to the death

With most of the difficult policy changes made, it seems Australian PM Julia Gillard is now tidying house. Opponent Kevin Rudd is being swept to the backbenches to clear the path to the 2013 elections

I worked as a National Organiser for the Australia Labor Party during the Hawke years, when Kevin Rudd was a functionary in the office of the leader of the ALP in Queensland and Julia Gillard was the current or just departed president of the Australian Union of Students and active in the majority socialist left faction of the ALP in Victoria.

I knew Rudd only vaguely and if I encountered Gillard then, which is probable, I have no recollection of it, so I can’t speak with intimate knowledge of either. I met them both briefly (Gillard for a short natter) as Labour Party president, but I could not feign a personal insight into what drives them as people or politicians.

To understand the apparently incomprehensible events of the past week or so, it is as well to go back to how Rudd became leader and how he performed. Rudd defeated Kim Beazley in a party room ballot (the Aussies call it a “spill”) in 2006. In that ballot it was clear that Rudd brought little personal support, perhaps as few as five votes.

What made Rudd electable was the endorsement of Gillard, who brought forty plus votes to the table. In a very real sense, it was only the respect and confidence Gillard had developed in the federal caucus that enabled Rudd to get up at all. Rudd, however, has a major strength which you are witnessing right now; he’s a very good campaigner. Not the silver tongue of a Blair or an Obama, but still pretty good.

His modus operandi as a leader and Prime Minister however left much to be desired and led to his downfall. The best description of how Rudd operated comes from some of the American diplomatic traffic that appeared in the media courtesy of Wikileaks. Rudd was characterised as a “micro-manager, generally incompetent” and “an abrasive, incompetent control freak”.

These criticisms are mild compared to what his ministers and caucus colleagues experienced as Rudd’s ego seemed to build to intolerable proportions as his premiership advanced. He continually went over the heads of his ministers and the ALP in general, and came to believe that his relationship was solely with a romanticised ideal of the “Australian people”; exactly the justification for his challenge right now.

Gillard was the last minister to crack and it is generally accepted in the ALP caucus that her challenge to Rudd’s leadership was driven by Rudd’s manifest shortcomings rather than her own ambitions. At a relatively young 50, she could have just let Rudd stumble to defeat, and taken her chances at a future election.

In defeat, Rudd became a destabilising force, and fed upon dwindling support for the Labor government as tracked by all major polls. It seems likely that the current troubles are the result of the Gillard forces deciding to bring the whole matter to head, as they must do if they are to have the slightest chance of winning the next federal election, which must be held before November 2013.

Gillard is tough and ruthless and she believes with some justification that her government has bitten all the tough bullets – carbon tax, surtax on the mining industry etc. – and that calmer waters lie ahead. Her management of a wafer-thin majority has been deft. Late last year she persuaded the de-selected Liberal MP, Peter Slipper, to accept the position of Speaker thus removing her government’s dependence on Andrew Wilkie, an erratic independent from Tasmania. The logic of the present situation from the Gillard team’s viewpoint is that Rudd must not just suffer a defeat, but have his reputation trashed in the process; hence the leaks of a petulant Rudd and the vehement attacks by Deputy PM, Wayne Swan.

It’s unlikely that the Gillard government will fall, the independents which sustain it in power have no interest in an early election and neither do the many ALP members in marginal electorates.

It’s also much too early to write off the Gillard government. It remains a long time to the next election falls due, Liberal Leader Tony Abbott is generally seen as somewhat weird and the Coalition will have to explain where the more than one hundred billion dollars in expenditure cuts they promise will come from.

Australian politics remains rich and dramatic in ways we can’t match. There’s an election coming up in Queensland on March 24th. I haven’t missed one of these in twenty years. I’m eyeing my air points.