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Why Australia's newly-installed first woman Prime Minister could face defeat at the polls within months

Picture 7 Jason Groves is President of the UK Branch of the Liberal Party of Australia.

A desperate Australian Labor Party has ditched its leader only months before an election it could still easily lose. Elected just under three years ago in a result (wrongly) called a landslide, Kevin Rudd and Labor have gone from record high ratings to odds-on to be the first one term government since the Great Depression. All in a matter of months. Where did it go so wrong?

Put simply, Australian Labor failed to learn from the mistakes of Blair and Brown; the government has been beset by incompetence, empty spin, fiscal profligacy and embarrassing policy backdowns. Media commentators in Australia will be excited by having Australia’s first woman premier but, as Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has sat at Kevin Rudd’s right hand, helping him preside over the whole catastrophic mess.

At the beginning of this year, Kevin Rudd’s opinion polls still reckoned him the most popular Prime Minister since beer-swilling Bob Hawke. It was an odd comparison. Bob Hawke was the kind of womanising, ‘larrikin’, man-of-the-people leader that Australians warm to. By contrast, Kevin Rudd was a nerdy, dull and uninspiring PM whose attempts at appearing blokey never rang true.

Australians quite like the fact that he spoke Mandarin. And his dullness was somehow reassuring through the global financial crisis. He gained plaudits by apologising to the “stolen generation” of Aboriginal people; something the last Liberal government made a mistake by failing to do themselves. The rest of his time in office was a catalogue of errors.

Despite inheriting the most solid set of government finances in the western world, Kevin Rudd went on a wasteful spending spree that has seen the country’s fiscal position worsen dramatically. Credit for keeping Australia out of the worst of the crisis must surely go to John Howard and his finance minister Peter Costello.

Rudd tried to lead a green government and failed. The badly botched scheme that saw government subsidise home roof insulation, resulted in four deaths, electrified over 1,000 roofs and caused at least 86 house fires. It also cost the government its colourful environment minister, former Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett.

Labor’s main election policy, to introduce a Emissions Trading Scheme, was spectacularly ditched after the failure of the Copenhagen climate meeting. The government was forced to perform a humiliating backflip after it became the clear that the policy could not work, penalising Australian industry for very little environmental benefit.

To cap it all, the government in recent weeks has been trying to implement a big new tax on the country’s hugely profitable mining sector. Still largely owned domestically, the sector has made a massive contribution to keeping Australia out of recession. Despite warnings from industry that it could stifle further growth, the government has been determined to press ahead, threatening the economy and jobs.

Fears over its impact has seen the Liberal/National party coalition forge ahead in the polls for the first time in five years. Kevin Rudd’s personal popularity fell away, most notably in the marginal seats Labour needs to retain.

Julia Gillard will undoubtedly be a more popular replacement. She will inevitably call an election during her political honeymoon, giving Labor a chance at retaining government. But at the heart of today’s news is a message for members of British Labour electing their new leader: a leader can’t lead if their position is owed to faceless backroom warlords. Events of today have proved beyond all doubt that Australian Labor remains in thrall to the union movement.

You have to admire the ruthlessness of Labor’s parliamentary factions which still caucus separately and that control party room numbers with ruthless efficiency. It makes staging a coup so much easier.

Julia Gillard is the first left wing Labor Prime Minister since Gough Whitlam, whose economic mess it took almost 30 years to fix. Yet she was installed by the right wing unions and factions. The Left supported Rudd. Confused? It’s all about power. Just watch the unions divide up the spoils of victory.

The new prime minister’s ascent is an ugly one, reliant on faceless factional and union patronage. It lacks transparency and, like Gordon Brown’s, lacks any kind of mandate. By contrast, the Liberal opposition has regrouped quickly after its election loss three years ago. Despite being on its third leader in that time, the opposition is united and has shown itself ready to govern. Under Tony Abbott, it has shown itself a principled, measured alternative government and has been rewarded accordingly in the polls.

The coming Australian election will be close and bitterly fought. But Australian Labor miscalculate if they think that this coup will be brushed off by voters. They will know who holds real power in the new Gillard government.


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