Kevin Rudd snatched back his head before it was put to the guillotine of a Labor party vote on Thursday, but only after he reluctantly quit as Australia’s prime minister to avoid public humiliation.
His ousting capped a tumultuous 24 hours that saw Julia Gillard, his deputy and erstwhile ally, rise to become the country’s first woman prime minister.
Within months, Mr Rudd, the giant killer who ended conservative leader John Howard’s 11-year rule, had gone from golden boy to dunce. And for the first time in at least 60 years, a first-term sitting prime minister had been ejected by his own party.
The former diplomat and public servant won notoriety in 2007 when elected as the developed world’s first fluent Mandarin-speaking leader. But Mr Rudd never quite delivered on the early promise and in the end he lost the trust of the electorate and his party over the competency of his leadership.
Peter van Onselen, a politics professor at Edith Cowan University in Perth, said Mr Rudd was never a loved Labor party figure and fitted poorly into its highly factionalised ranks. “He was not a creature of the party. He didn’t have a power base and so was always vulnerable when he didn’t have a purpose for the Labor party,” he said.
After a honeymoon lasting more than two years that fuelled Mr Rudd’s appetite for imperial rule, the opinion polls began to sour earlier this year over policy back-flips and wasteful government spending initiatives. But the shock announcement last month of a 40 per cent resource profits supertax, a divisive and badly formed policy launched only months before an election campaign, was the last straw for many.
“He was arrogant and, worse, he governed arrogantly by riding on his popularity and when things changed he wouldn’t listen,” Mr van Onselen said. “Once things turned negatively, it simply snowballed.”
But, almost to the last, Mr Rudd seemed in denial.
In spite of party discontent, he doubted Ms Gillard had the desire to challenge him and he felt confident it would be political suicide for the party to install a new prime minister so close to the next election. Labor party powerbrokers felt differently and decided it was time to lance the Rudd boil.
According to one party veteran, Mr Rudd was told early on Thursday Ms Gillard was likely to get close to 70 per cent party support if the leadership issue was put to a vote. Faced with that prospect, he decided to go.
It is still too early to complete Mr Rudd’s political obituary. On Thursday he took to the backbenches as Ms Gillard addressed the parliament as the nation’s leader. He also said he would contest his seat at the next election. “I will be dedicating my every effort to the re-election of this Australian government.”
But he can never hope to become leader again, and a senior cabinet position is at best a long shot.
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