In a political comeback of Shakespearean proportions, Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was replaced on Wednesday night by the very same man that she stole the top job from almost three years ago to the day.
The leadership coup, which is set to see Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reinstated, played out in less than a day and follows devastating polling for Gillard’s government in the leadup to a September election.
In what is already being dubbed “one of the great political comebacks in Australian history,” Mr. Rudd reclaimed the prime ministership from his former deputy in a party room vote on Wednesday evening, 57 votes to 45. He will be sworn in as the new prime minister tomorrow.
Ms. Gillard ousted Rudd as PM and leader of the nation’s center-left party, the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP), in mid-2010, after the once-unassailable leader fell out of favor with his party due to mining disputes and climate change policy.
Two months later, Gillard scraped the ALP into another term by forming a minority government with several key independent powerbrokers. But she then found her reign dogged by the man she deposed.
While Rudd served as foreign minister, he unsuccessfully recontested the prime ministership in early 2012. When he didn’t win, he resigned to the backbench amid calls from both sides that he was intentionally destabilizing the ALP.
"I promise you this: There is no way, no way, that I will ever be part of a stealth attack on a sitting prime minister elected by the people. We all know that what happened then was wrong, and it must never happen again,” said Rudd at the time.
Drama in Australia
Australian voters – who have increasingly turned their favor toward the conservative Liberal Party – were rocked by a second unsuccessful leadership disruption from Rudd’s backers earlier this year.
The nation’s media had been speculating about a third attempt at a coup from the Rudd camp for several weeks. In response, Gillard called a Labor leadership ballot on Wednesday evening with only a few hours' notice.
Rudd’s chances looked murky until just 30 minutes before the fateful ballot, when Gillard’s long-term backer, Bill Shorten, announced that he had switched his support from Gillard to Rudd.
Eva Cox, an Australian political commentator and feminist, says that the ALP, worried about retaining power in the upcoming elections, ultimately chose Rudd for the leadership because it needed “somebody who could communicate” to the disillusioned electorate.
“They were not getting through to the electorate and the polls were looking dismal [in lead up to the September election]. They had a candidate sitting there who could communicate,” says Ms. Cox.
“The back benches, including Bill Shorten, did a count and said to themselves: ‘If we keep going down this track than we are just going to lose control’,” she says, adding that the Gillard government just “didn’t excite” voters.
The coup followed a series of national polls that indicated Gillard could lose up to 35 seats in the next election, giving the party of hardline conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott, a massive majority in the 150-seat parliament.
Gillard – who said in a stoic statement late Wednesday evening that she is “very proud of what [her] government has achieved" – is likely to be remembered for disability and education reform, as well as a contentious carbon tax.
She is now set to leave Australian politics for good as part of a promise made just hours before the coup, with some of her closest allies, including deputy and treasurer Wayne Swan, resigning from their current roles.
Other senior figures, including education minister, Peter Garrett, trade minister Craig Emerson, and climate minister Greg Combet, have quit their posts as part of the veritable political bloodbath.
What about the elections?
Tomorrow, Australia’s governor general will swear in Rudd – who will be supported by new deputy and longtime supporter Anthony Albanese – as prime minister. And though polls indicated Rudd would be a tougher candidate to beat than Gillard for the opposition, Cox said it was unlikely that Rudd will lead the ALP into a victory at the next election.
“It would be extraordinarily hard under the current circumstances for them to win the next election. However, I do suspect that [opposition leader] Tony Abbott is not all that happy about the leadership change.
“I think [Abbott] now realizes that he actually has a fight on his hands. Regardless of what you think about Rudd, he’s a bloody good campaigner. The last few years has been fairly impersonal politics and voters don’t like that.”
Gillard set elections for September, but Rudd could call them as early as August.
Gillard, who found global fame late last year due to her now famous “misogyny speech” attack on Abbott, had been attempting to retain control over her leadership by making women’s rights a leading 2013 election issue.
Just this month, the red-headed politician was the brunt of a wildly sexist political joke by members of the Liberal Party.
“I think it’s sad that the first Australian female prime minister has gone down is such chaos, but she was a victim of bad party politics, rather than gender bias,” says Cox.
Gillard said in her exit speech that her gender had determined both "everything" and "nothing," and that she gave her full support to Rudd as leader of the ALP and Australia's new prime minister.