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It turns out that Kevin Rudd is not Australian Labor's messiah

By Tim Montgomerie in Melbourne
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Kevin Rudd first became Australia’s prime minister in 2007 after a presidential campaign built almost entirely around his then stratospheric popularity. He enjoyed approval ratings of over seventy per cent but the public acclaim went to his head. He started running his country’s government and his Labor party in a dictatorial style. His colleagues came to detest him and three years ago Julia Gillard toppled him and became Australia’s first female leader.

In a play about this political assassination Ms Gillard is portrayed as a brutal killer. She stabs her victim repeatedly in a determination to ensure he can never live to fight another day. At the end of the drama Rudd is laying at the centre of the stage. As the curtain falls the audience sees the bloodied body twitch. Rudd was not so dead after all and earlier this year, on 27th June, he turned the tables on Ms Gillard and toppled her.

Yesterday, at a Brisbane campaign launch (Times £ report), a very lively Mr Rudd presented himself as the comeback kid. ''I have been in tougher spots before,” he said, “and come back from behind.'' Gillard was not at the event. She has hardly said a word since Rudd got his revenge. Her allies won’t stay silent if, as every opinion poll and pundit predicts, Rudd loses.

The experience will be instructive to all politicians in all parts of the world who think that leadership switcheroos equal a winning strategy. A party that was heading for a landslide defeat turned to Rudd in desperation, in the hope that he might recapture the magic of 2007. For a period the election race did tighten but there is now some speculation that Rudd might even lose his own seat. The latest polls suggest a 54% to 46% lead for the conservative opposition.

In an article for The Age newspaper Brian Costar attempts to “debunk the myth of the electoral messiah”. He notes how changing the leader has become incredibly fashionable in Australian politics:

“Between 1949 and 1972 the big parties (Liberal, Labor and the Nationals' forerunner, the Country Party) had 11 federal leaders among them, of whom only one, John Gorton, was removed by his own party. But between 1972 and 2013 the same parties had 29 leaders, 15 of whom (or a shade over half) were ousted by party room coups - two of them in the past three years.”

Professor Costar blames the growth of opinion polling and nervous parties use surveys – however fleeting - that question a leader’s qualities to depose them. He quotes research from successive elections which suggest that leadership is not a decisive factor. Australian Labor, he argues, would have been better advised to focus on regeneration of its policy, philosophy and party organisation if it wanted to remain competitive. Instead, he writes, “it went messiah-seeking”.

Back to the current campaign and Labor has fought a poor campaign. Rudd had hoped to frighten voters with fears of big spending cuts if conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott is elected. That scare campaign was torpedoed last week by government civil servants. In an attempt to curry favour with their likely new masters leading Treasury officials disowned Rudd’s use of their research which he had presented as proof that Abbott’s plans didn't add up.

It wasn’t the only setback suffered by the Labor leader. His own colleagues questioned promises he made to introduce Hi-Speed rail and move dockland jobs away from Sydney and, conveniently, into electoral battlegrounds. The old Rudd who bypassed his colleagues was back but, this time, they were not accepting the cavalier behaviour quite so meekly.

Most advanced democracies would be delighted to have Australia’s economic record. Boosted by the export of raw materials to China the so-called ‘lucky country’ has enjoyed 22 years of uninterrupted growth. The economy has stuttered somewhat over the last six years but living standards are still up by 15 per cent. Labor is being punished for its Rudd-Gillard soap opera, for failing to deliver a promised budget surplus and for breaking a vow not to introduce a carbon tax.

Rudd needed a game-changing election campaign but voters seem more interested in a drug scandal that is rocking Australian rules football. Against that background Abbott is coasting to victory with his traditional conservative message of budgetary discipline, a tough approach to immigration and support for the family.

When the curtain falls this Saturday we’re unlikely to see any twitch from Rudd’s political corpse. The Gillardites are certainly determined to finish Abbott’s work. After election day many are going to take enormous public pleasure in banging nail after nail into his political coffin.


Later this week I'll report on the conservatism of Tony Abbott.


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