Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kevin Rudd's fall from grace creates political flux in Oz

MELBOURNE, Australia — The dust has yet to settle as Australian national politics has moved at break neck speed in the weeks since the dramatic ouster of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in late June.

Rudd, who last year had high favourable poll numbers in the stratosphere among likely Australian voters and a popular administration that seemed rock-solid, even a sure bet against any opposition, found himself this year on the opposite end of the popularity surveys. His fall from grace with having served well over half of his three year term is nothing short of spectacular, say political insiders and historians.

Julia Gillard, Rudd’s deputy prime minister, assumed the role of her former boss in what some are calling a palace coup. Gillard called for an early election in recent days that has thrust this nation of 22 million into an unexpected, full-court-press for the highest post in the land.

Issues such as a proposed new tax on the mining industry, immigration and refugee entrants, and Rudd’s controversial flip-flop on a key environmental initiative, carbon trading omissions, or carbon cap and trade in the U.S., dogged his administration and his Labor Party’s chances at the polls this year. Those three issues were points that had been hammered away at by Rudd’s chief opposition in parliament, members of the conservative Liberal Party. Yet, unlike the Republican Party in the U.S. since the rise of President Barack Obama, Australia’s Liberal Party had seemed to be a political party in disarray. That disarray among his opponents makes Rudd’s ouster by his own party officials all the more remarkable: He had been a master of deflecting criticism and his own missteps, while Liberal Party officials bickered openly among themselves and jockeyed for leadership positions. He was expected to right his own ship, shore up support within his own party and successfully contest re-election in the November vote. It was not to be.

Results in three state-wide elections in Tasmania, South Australia and in New South Wales earlier this year made Labor Party officials nervous. The contests could be likened to the so-called mid-term federal elections in the U.S., with premierships, like state gubernatorial races, very much in play.

But two contests, one in South Australia, and the other in Tasmania, were cliff hangers, and nearly cost the Labor Party premierships with close votes. In both states, results over who had won were unclear, while in Tasmania there was a recount that lasted several days.

Meanwhile the Green Party, long advocates of environmental issues but considered marginal by the two main parties, had made inroads with three seats to the federal parliament in Canberra in elections held in Western Australia.

The vote in those three states while local in nature had national implications for the November ballots, high ranking Labor Party officials believed. The Green Party, seemingly out of nowhere, was now in a position to play king maker inside parliament house in Canberra.

Rudd’s rise to power within the Labor Party began in 2006, and for many political insiders, it was a peculiar triumph over opposition within it. Privately, some members of the inner circle of Labor politics did not like him, but the public loved him. There were many reasons for that in the ever fluctuating realm of Australian politics.

Chief among the reasons for Kevin Rudd’s rise to prominence: like the waning days of U.S. President George W. Bush’s last months in office, then Prime Minister John Howard seemed a leader who was out of ideas. The national economy was in recession, and there was discontent within union ranks across Australia.

As a party, Labor had been in opposition for 12 solid years, not unlike the Democrats in the early 1990’s, during the years of Ronald Reagan, and the first President Bush. For many in the Australian public, Rudd was a breath of fresh air.

To many party insiders he was a fresh face on the political scene, and seemed to be what the public yearned for. Rudd did not belong to any faction within the Labor Party, and thus, appeared not only independent, but also not burdened by favors owed to party insiders. To the Australian public, he seemed to be just what was needed: a politician with conviction for a new direction, and one with courage.

Fluent in Mandarin, Rudd was seen as the one man who could speak directly to Chinese leaders in the important economic trade relations shared between the two nations.

High numbers in the polls delivered Rudd and the Labor Party to power in a landslide election in the November 2007 vote. Yet, starting in late 2007, and away from reporters and cameras, Rudd’s popularity with party members began to change. Up close, those who worked with him began to resent him. His energy, enthusiasm and resilience for the new job were phenomenal. Yet word began to leak out that his resilience and energy was also equally matched by his temper and sense of self belief. Strangely, this can be a liability not only in politics, but in other sectors of Australian public life. Some members of his caucus felt belittled. Others, including ministers were frustrated while other staff members simply quit. Much of this was not made public. Yet, because of his popularity among Australian voters, Rudd took bold steps not taken by any other elected official in the history of the nation.

Australia has a complicated history on the matter of race, not unlike that found in the United States. Principally it has been the treatment of its original citizens, the Aboriginals, that Rudd took aim at in a dramatic speech before parliament in February of 2008. He issued an apology to what many call the Stolen Generation. This was a policy of relocation to tens of thousands of Aboriginal children in an attempt to westernize and modernize a people whose conditions and history mirror the American Indian nations in North America. The address did not concretely offer reparations to Australia’s lback population, but rather an acknowledgement of a racist policy few would discuss publicly.

Rudd also used his office as both a pulpit and platform to put this largely isolated nation onto the world stage. He was a frequent traveler and avid promoter of the new Australian voice in international affairs.

In 2009 Rudd made the cover of Time magazine as a man to watch and a new player to be reckoned with. Elected officials in both Europe and North America soon took notice. Rudd and the then newly elected U.S. President Obama became fast friends. There was talk of a new "special relationship" between the two countries, not unlike that found between the U.S., Britain and Israel.

At home, Rudd spearheaded an economic stimulus package that has not only helped to jump start a sluggish economy but has also led to a national unemployment rate that hovers just above 5 percent. All of this was for naught, as party officials began looking at national poll numbers that found Labor trailing the Liberal Party in November. The move to dump Rudd with the lagging poll numbers and replace him with Julia Gillard, his deputy, was swift, unexpected, spectacular and, some say, even ruthless in its timing.

New Prime Minister Gillard is now Australia’s first female head of state. She also becomes the third person to occupy the prime minister’s post in as many years. But many on the world stage are now asking, "who is she?" Is she a small ‘L’ liberal, pro-Labor, anti-racist leader in the mold of Norway’s former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland? Or is she a neo-conservative whose party platform will shift and take the shape of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Only time will tell.

At present, nationally, with the dramatic changes inside government now taking hold, Labor has a 10 point lead over the Liberals. The election is now set for August 21st and Gillard has set the tone already by calling for just one debate between herself and Tony Abbott, the leader of the Liberal Party.

It is a contest political pundits and insiders expect to be robust at the very least. Of the race, Abbott told reporters recently that he expected “a filthy campaign,” containing dirty tricks and vigorous attack ads.

Gillard has already cancelled several cabinet meetings in Canberra this week and has hit the campaign trail. Abbott has followed suit making campaign stops in Sydney and Melbourne.

While all of this unfolds, the former prime minister, reportedly emotionally shaken by his spectacular fall, returned to his home state of Queensland to consider his next moves. Adding insult to injury, he was not asked to join the Gillard administration in any capacity while she re-shuffled the cabinet.

Many insiders had thought Rudd would still be an asset to the new government in some way that would include the use of his strongest skills, of diplomacy and bargaining. He was reportedly in touch with Obama, according to press reports here, less than an hour before his ouster.

Rudd, who has kept a low profile in recent weeks, was reportedly seen in both Washington and New York in recent days. As the first and only Gillard-Abbott debate draws near, the state of Australian politics is in flux and the fate of a former prime minister uncertain.

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