Labor showdown in Canberra

by Gregory Clark

It was a battle of the opposites. On one side we had ex-Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, 54, a former diplomat with baby-face looks, devoted wife and family, carefully cultivated religious persona and impeccable CV. Opposed was current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, 51, ex-lawyer, atheist with a WASP-ish demeanor, a live-in partner and a career in the rough and tumble of leftwing Australian politics.

He strides the world scene fighting climate change and other evils. She is happy to admit little interest in foreign affairs. His power base is grass-roots Queensland in the north; hers is the politicized salons of Adelaide and Melbourne in the south. He is popular with the national electorate. Opinion polls have shown her popularity trailing the opposition parties badly. The only thing that both have in common is membership in the Australian Labor Party.

Yet, when it came to a showdown for the right to lead that party and replace Gillard as prime minister, Rudd was trounced, 71 to 31. Why?

Rudd came to politics via China, thanks to Canberra’s efforts beginning in 1960 train one or two of its diplomats each year in Chinese. From there he graduated to ALP politics in his home state of Queensland. Neither were necessarily the best launching pads for a national political career; the jump from diplomacy to politics is not easy and Queensland is a long way from Canberra. But by dint of good timing, hard work and electoral appeal he made his way through the ranks to lead the party to its landslide 2007 victory over the Liberals and their coalition partners.

From there on, however, it was all downhill. Reports say Rudd’s driven and self-centered personality created an administration variously called “chaotic” and “dysfunctional.” In 2010, ALP power-brokers — the “faceless men” they were called — plotted successfully to have him replaced by Gillard, his deputy prime minister. In the national election soon after Labor lost its majority and has only been able to survive with support from independents and the environmentalist Green Australia party.

Feuding between Rudd and Gillard factions has continued ever since. The last straw for Rudd, it seems, was a YouTube posting, allegedly by Gillard supporters, of a secretly taped scene in which he is shown swearing violently over an unsuitable translation of a speech he was to make in Chinese. He abruptly resigned his position as foreign minister to challenge Gillard. But he then had to hurry back to Canberra from Washington virtually overnight to join the immediate party vote that Gillard had called to decide his challenge.

I can relate to Rudd’s problems. The jump from diplomacy to politics is not easy. Nor does the ability to speak a difficult — and for Australia, important — language carry much weight in the parochial Australian boondocks. On the contrary it can even be a negative: “You’re not one of our mob, Mate.” When the jump is to a Labor Party with its factions and power brokers based mainly in the southern states the distance is even greater.

Rudd may have won an important election for the party in 2007. He deserves credit for his effort to impose a mineral resources tax — something Australia badly needs to balance its economy but it is bitterly opposed by the minerals industry and the Murdoch press to the point that it was a major nail in his 2010 coffin.

But he also quickly antagonized even his supporters with his allegedly arrogant manner and other personal failings. Before long the brokers — head-kickers they are also called — were plotting to have him replaced. Working in the incestuous climate of Canberra-centered federal politics — it is no accident that just half of Australia’s 26 prime ministers have been deposed by intraparty squabbles — they were able suddenly to announce to a bemused public that Rudd would resign and Australia would have a new prime minister, Julia Gillard.

The recriminations were not slow in coming. A Rudd camp campaign of calculated leaks attacking Gillard and her followers soon got under way, helped greatly by WikiLeaks showing some head-kickers collaborating with the U.S. Embassy to have Rudd deposed (Washington may have disliked the pro-American Rudd’s independence and attempts to keep a balance between China and the U.S.).

Political commentator Norman Abjorensen has denounced the Rudd-leaks as “an act as contemptible as a political act can be. The prime minister (Gillard) rightly called it sabotage.” But the Gillard-leaks were fairly ugly too. That YouTube video took no account of the frustration someone like Rudd would have felt when presented at the last moment with an unusable text — flowery Chinese prose rather than short, precise sentences — for a speech he has to give. For most Australians it only showed a man who could not control his emotions. The video went viral, together with other videos mocking Rudd’s Chinese. It was a blow below the belt, and highly damaging.

Gillard now has 18 months to consolidate her position before the next federal elections are due. Her claim that she can do better job than Rudd could be valid. Despite lacking a parliamentary majority, she has managed in two years to push through the carbon tax legislation that had defied Rudd’s prime ministerial efforts. In her high-noon showdown with Rudd she won belated respect for a confidence and frankness she had not shown before. According to Abjorensen: “By challenging — and decisively losing — Kevin Rudd has at least done Julia Gillard a favor, or two.”

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and longtime resident in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.