SYDNEY/CANBERRA – Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard remained leader of the governing Labor party after her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, declined to challenge her in a ballot Thursday.
No rivals stood against either Gillard or Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Wayne Swan, Labor official Chris Hayes said.
The nation’s first female prime minister, whose party has trailed in opinion polls for almost two years, faces the challenge of rejuvenating support for Labor at a time when its core backing is being eroded by job losses in manufacturing and retail industries.
With national elections scheduled for Sept. 14, Gillard now has the task of unifying the party as it takes on Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition.
“Gillard’s win, while another personal triumph, may not be able to solve the tension and the apparent dysfunction in the government,” said Stephen Stockwell, a political analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane. “It’s not beyond her to revitalize her position and refresh the party, but it’s hard to see her being able to turn Labor around enough to win the election.”
Days of intensifying leadership speculation came to a head earlier Thursday when senior Labor minister Simon Crean called on his colleagues to sign a petition to force a ballot if Gillard refused to call one.
Crean — a former Labor leader — said he wanted to challenge Swan for the deputy prime minister post and urged Rudd to throw in his hat for the top job. In response, Gillard sacked him from his position as arts minister. While Rudd has repeatedly pledged not to make another attempt on the leadership, his supporters have been campaigning behind the scenes and Crean had called on him to declare his intentions.
“(Rudd) can’t continue to play the game that says he’s reluctant or he has to be drafted. This is an issue that has to be resolved. There’s too much at stake,” Crean told reporters.
A Newspoll survey of 1,143 people published Tuesday in the Australian newspaper showed a Rudd-led Labor winning 56 percent support on a two-party preferred basis and the opposition under Abbott 44 percent. The poll forecast a 52-48 percent split in favor of the opposition with Gillard leading the Labor party.
Thursday’s developments came nearly three years after Gillard ousted Rudd in a late night party-room coup. In February last year, Rudd failed to regain the leadership when he lost a ballot by 71 votes to 31.
While Rudd, 55, enjoys greater support than Gillard among the general public, he faces antipathy from Labor’s senior ranks over his leadership style. Swan last year described him as a man of “great weakness” who had demeaned his party colleagues during his three-year tenure as prime minister.
Rudd has remained on the sidelines since resigning as foreign minister to challenge Gillard last year.
Gillard, meanwhile, has been dogged by the speculation for weeks, with rumors fueled by her government’s decision to try and introduce media reforms that the industry has united to fiercely oppose. Reports said the government was expected to withdraw its media reform bills from Parliament later Thursday in what would be a crushing failure for the prime minister.
Still, a defiant Gillard said her administration would “fight and fight and fight” until September’s polls. “We will prevail in that election because the choice will be so clear and the right path for a stronger, smarter, fairer future will be so clear as well,” she said.
Support for Labor has waned after a series of policy back flips — including on a carbon emissions tax — while a weakening manufacturing sector in some key Labor seats on the fringes of major cities has sapped support for the government.
Her record in pushing through ground-breaking legislation, such as the world’s first compulsory plain packaging for cigarettes, also has been overshadowed by scandals involving Labor lawmakers.
Labor’s fragile support base is also evident at the state level, where it only holds power in the two least populous of Australia’s six states. Since the 2010 election, the party has lost 109 of the nation’s 598 seats at a state and territory level.
Key events in Australia’s acrimonious leadership tussle
June 23, 2010: Then-Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard challenges Kevin Rudd to a leadership ballot after his popularity plummets. Gillard goes on to win unopposed. She quickly calls national elections.
Aug. 21: The Labor party fails to win a majority, prompting Australia’s first electoral deadlock in 70 years.
Sept. 7: After lengthy negotiations Labor returns to power with a fragile coalition. Gillard later appoints Rudd as foreign minister.
March 8, 2011: Gillard’s popularity drops to a record low amid plans for a pollution levy.
Feb. 22, 2012: Rudd resigns as foreign minister. Gillard calls a leadership ballot the next day and says both parties must accept the outcome as final. Gillard handily wins the ballot and vows to lead a unified front to the 2013 election. Rudd pledges his full support and says he holds no grudges.
Jan. 30, 2013: Amid renewed talk about Gillard’s leadership, she announces national elections for Sept. 14.
Feb. 15: Rudd dismisses mounting speculation he will again challenge Gillard, telling everyone to take “a long, cold shower.”
March 12: An opinion poll shows Gillard would be crushed in a national election, but Labor would easily win if Rudd was leader.