The end of Kevin Ten (or possibly Kevin Eleven)?

24 June 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

By the time you read this, Australia may have its first female prime minister. The Labor Caucus meets at 9am today to decide who will lead the Party to the next Federal election.

While the collapse of Kevin Rudd’s support within his own party has been as spectacular as it has been surprising, it is not entirely unexpected.

Even the most casual observer of the ALP could appreciate that while Rudd is in the Labor Party, he’s not exactly of it. In other words, compared to past Labor prime ministers such as Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating — leaders whose lives are intimately entangled within the Labor movement and its mythology — Rudd’s leadership seems like an anomaly.

That’s not to say that Rudd isn’t a Labor man at all. On the contrary, circumstances — namely the Global Financial Crisis — have meant that his government has pursued decidedly Old Labor policies of pump-priming the economy. Similarly, large infrastructure projects such as the National Broadband Network and the fabled Education Revolution, are the kinds of nation building projects which have been the bread and butter of Labor government of the past.

Nevertheless, Rudd’s public persona has always struggled to project himself as a natural political leader. He’s always seemed more of the senior bureaucrat; the highly effective advisor or policy wonk off to the side, rather the larger-than-life characters of Labor mythology. In short, Rudd has never managed to shrug off the perception that he’s an interim leader — someone who people are happy to stick with until someone better comes along or something goes terribly wrong.

Rudd’s great misfortune is that someone better has come along, in the form of Julia Gillard, and lots of things have gone terribly wrong: the failure of the emissions trading scheme, the botched insulation scheme, continuing questions about the costings of the ‘education revolution’ (which Julia Gillard has overseen, but which hurt Rudd) and a messy public relations war with mining bosses.

Rudd’s personal handling of some of these issues hasn’t helped his cause. Rudd’s now infamous ‘7.30 Report land’ exchange with Kerry O’Brien in which O’Brien accused Rudd of ‘political cowardice’ over the ETS backflip made the PM look thin-skinned. More recently, Rudd’s attempts at humour at Canberra’s Mid-Winter Ball — telling mining bosses ‘Can I say guys, we’ve got a long memory’ — were perhaps the least diplomatic thing that a former diplomat could say.

Whatever the circumstances around the spill, one thing is for sure: Labor’s private polling on Rudd must have been horrible. Whatever the public opinion polls are saying — and bearing in mind that the poll numbers are only really reliable when the election is called — Labor’s number must be showing that they are staring down the barrel of election defeat. How else to explain been such a high risk move so close to an election?

And make no mistake: this is a high-risk move whoever winds up leader of the Labor Party. Even if in the unlikely event that Rudd wins with a convincing majority, he will be tarnished by the challenge and seen as a lame duck leader. If the public polls are bad now, they will undoubtedly be worse if he manages to hold onto the leadership.

If Gillard wins — even with a comfortable majority — Labor isn’t out of the woods. The very fact that Labor has taken such a high risk move will strengthen Tony Abbott’s position. While installing Gillard as leader will undoubtedly enable Labor to regain momentum in the lead up to the election, it also sends a clear message to the electorate that Labor’s power brokers believe that Tony Abbott is electable.

While Gillard will no doubt benefit from a honeymoon period that could see her sail through the upcoming federal election, Labor still has work to do win back swinging voters.

Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University and is a co-founder of upstart. He has a PhD in politics from Monash University.