Political Hay

Labor’s Love Lost Down Under

Progressive infighting that puts Republican disagreements to shame.

By 2.22.12

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It may seem to both casual and experienced observers that the Republican primary race has thus far been a rough and tumble blood sport, with more pints left to be spilled. But compared with the bone crushing, rugby style of Australia's governing Labor Party; the GOP proceedings seem like a game of touch football by comparison.

For more than a decade, Australia had been governed by the conservative Liberal Party in partnership with the smaller, agrarian National Party. The Liberal/National coalition was led by John Howard who was elected to four consecutive terms becoming the second longest serving prime minister in Australia's history. But Howard stuck around for one term too many and was defeated at the polls in November 2007, even losing his own seat in Australia's House of Representatives. The Australian Labor Party was back in power and Kevin Rudd, who had been chosen leader of the official opposition the previous year, became its new Prime Minister.

However, the Rudd era proved to be short lived. In June 2010, after less than a full term in office, Rudd had lost public support as well as the confidence of the Labor Party caucus in the House of Representatives and of Labor Party power brokers. Rudd had alienated former allies with his autocratic governing style and with his energy policies in particular. Rudd had attempted to enact a carbon emissions trading scheme (re: cap and trade) that he was ultimately forced to abandon and then subsequently engaged in a row with mining companies over a super profits tax.

Because of this Rudd would end up facing a challenge from Julia Gillard, his deputy prime minister. Although Rudd had initially planned to take Gillard head on, when it was clear he did not have the needed votes he stepped aside and resigned both as Labor Party leader and as prime minister. Rudd was out; Gillard was in. Imagine if Hillary Rodham Clinton had organized a bloodless coup against President Obama. No doubt President Obama is thankful there is no parliamentary system in the United States.

Alas, Gillard does not have the luxury of separation of powers and she could now find herself in Rudd's position after less than two years in office. Although Gillard managed to be elected in her own right in August 2010, she did so by the narrowest of margins. Both Labor and the Liberals, now led by Tony Abbott, each won 72 seats and Australia had its first hung parliament in seven decades. However, Gillard managed to find a coalition partner in the Australian Green Party to give her a narrow parliamentary majority. Gillard also kept Rudd in the cabinet as her Minister of Foreign Affairs in a classic case of "keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer."

But it very much remains to be seen if Gillard has the wherewithal of Sun Tzu, never mind Michael Corleone. As Tony Bramston, a former speechwriter for Rudd, put it, "I think Kevin Rudd has been campaigning for a return to the leadership, almost from the day he lost it." It would appear that Gillard didn't keep Rudd nearly close enough. But given the circumstances under which Rudd was forced from office, it appeared that Rudd was merely biding his time. It became a question of when rather than if he would do to Gillard what Gillard had done to him.

Indeed, Gillard's popularity began to decline in earnest last July for pursuing energy policies similar to Rudd's, most notably a carbon tax. Gillard's popularity has not recovered and her fate became uncertain over the weekend when a Labor MP named Darren Cheeseman publicly said that not only should Gillard resign but Rudd should get his old job back. No doubt Gillard found Cheeseman's intervention to be quite grating.

While Rudd has not issued a formal challenge thus far, Gillard's supporters aren't taking any chances and have vociferously criticized Rudd both overtly and covertly. A videotape was leaked of Rudd swearing like a sailor while he was prime minister, much to his embarrassment. It is hard to imagine that a Gillard ally wasn't responsible for that footage coming to light. Gillard's supporters have gone as far as to say that if Rudd becomes prime minister again, the Labor government will fall and force an early election.

Perhaps the most outspoken Labor MP against Rudd is Simon Crean, who recently accused Rudd of being disloyal and challenged him to "put up or shut up." Yet it appears that Crean has his own agenda, as he was leader of the Labor Party from 2001 to 2003. (He would abruptly resign after losing support of his caucus and the party establishment due to low poll numbers against Prime Minister Howard and did not get a chance to contest an election.) If Labor cannot go forward with either Gillard or Rudd, Crean could present himself as a compromise candidate. Whoever prevails, it is clear there is no love lost amongst Labor.

Of course, the person who benefits the most from this row on the Labor front benches is none other than Tony Abbott. So long as there is instability as to who exactly is leading the Australian government, the Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition needn't say a word. With each passing day, Abbott looks more and more like a viable alternative by default, and if an early election comes to pass it would be the Liberal Party's to lose. Australians are longing for the sort of reliable, stable government they had under John Howard and might be eager to give Abbott a decisive mandate. With each passing day, it is clear the Labor Party cannot govern itself, never mind Australia.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.