As expected, Australia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has easily held off former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd's leadership challenge with a ballot of ruling Australian Labor Party MPs following his February 22 resignation going 71-31 in her favour. After the vote, both Ms Gillard and her challenger said all the right things about unifying the party, and Mr. Rudd has acted on his stated intention of returning to the backbenches if he lost the vote. The Labor party, however, still faces serious problems, as neither Mr. Rudd nor Ms Gillard has an unblemished record in office. The former led the party to a landslide win in 2007, ending a dozen years of Liberal rule, only to alienate his own parliamentary colleagues so much that Ms Gillard won a leadership challenge in June 2010. She got Labor re-elected as a minority government later that year, but the party's poll ratings have slipped steadily for months, falling to 30 per cent at one point and possibly prompting her rival's challenge; Ms Gillard has herself acknowledged that her focus on policy means the “big picture” has not been explained to voters, among whom Mr. Rudd's current ratings are at 53 per cent to the Prime Minister's 28.
Such public perceptions could be decisive in the next federal election, because on substantive policies there is little to separate Ms Gillard and Mr. Rudd. They both want a carbon tax as well as increased revenues from the vast profits made from coal and other natural resources, and they both want reform in the health and education sectors. Ironically, the past five years have been among Labor's most successful, with the election win and then general avoidance of the worst of the global crash, including a foodgrain crisis caused by a drought in 2007-8. In effect, other countries with substantive Australian links — such as India — will not expect much policy change from Canberra. The domestic ramifications, however, are extensive. Labor's chaos is a gift to the main opposition grouping, the Liberal-National coalition, whose leader Tony Abbott, a hard-line Catholic conservative, calls Labor's internal turmoil an “embarrassment” and talks of “poison” within the government. His party leads the ratings by 53 per cent to 47 per cent, enough for a huge win. The Labor leadership, for its part, must hope there will be no public splits until the next national poll, the last date for which is November 30, 2013; a major trade union leader has warned Labor that its feuds mean electoral “suicide.” The party has been very badly tarnished; Ms Gillard will want to get on with policy, but will need to communicate far better with the voters, while reconnecting with the essence of what it means to be a labour party.