No political thriller could match the reality of current Australian politics. Lazarus with a triple bypass has once again risen from the political graveyard. The martyr is now the master and our first female prime minister will retire from politics at the next election. Kevin Rudd, the man who carried the ALP to a historic victory in 2007 – and unseated our second longest serving prime minister along the way – is once again the people's PM.
The impact of this change has been immediate. Suddenly there is a spring in the ALP's step. The gloom and despair has evaporated and a snap Morgan poll has seen the ALP gain 5 points for a nail-biting 49.5 to the Coalition's 50.5 on a two party preferred basis. For months Rupert Murdoch and his acolytes have insisted that the debate is over and that Tony Abbott should be given the keys to the Lodge immediately. Suddenly, all has changed.
Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, appeared on ABC's Lateline moments after the leadership spill and the change in tenor was immediately apparent. Despite Tony Jones' best attempts to emphasis the instability and fractured nature of the current caucus, Carr was only interested in taking the fight to Abbott insisting that "suddenly the next election has become very contestable". Who do people want to represent Australia at the G20 summit: Rudd, described by Bill Clinton as one of the most intelligent leaders in the world or Abbott, described by Peter Costello as an economic illiterate?
But why did Gillard have to go? Why was our first female leader the cause of such friction rather than a great celebration? Put simply, Australian politics – like the Australian constitution – operates under the laws of convention. Do we the people vote for the prime minister? No we don't. We vote for a local member and the members themselves appoint a leader. While the ALP was technically within its rights to remove Kevin Rudd, it broke an important, unwritten but well understood protocol. You never knife a first term prime minister.
As I wrote back in 2012:
"The removal of a new prime minister after a landslide victory following a decade in opposition is absolute political hubris. They had 11 years of Howard government to get to know Kevin. To knife him in his first term claiming they had no idea he was such a dictatorial tyrant is simply ridiculous – and the public have been fittingly unforgiving". (Full article here)
We are rightly proud of our Australian Westminster system that places the democratic emphasis on party and politics not personality and popularity. The Australian people accept that after a couple of terms a leader may be out of fresh ideas and that internal renewal may serve the nation best. Keating's decision to challenge Hawke (twice) was legitimised with his subsequent electoral victory. The removal of Kevin Rudd in his first term, however, was seen as unjust and undemocratic. Many of the MPs who voted against him had ridden into parliament on his popular coattails only 2 years earlier. This is an offense to the fair go concept.
In the fullness of time, history will remember Julia Gillard as an exceptional prime minister who saw the passage of many important bills under very difficult circumstances often in the face of a hostile media, a rabid opposition and an undercurrent of misogyny. Ultimately, however, her fatal flaw was not her gender but her decision to take a poisoned chalice offered to her by factional kingmakers. Her legitimacy has never been accepted by many and this has made it impossible to sell her message.
With Rudd once again at the helm, the ALP can focus its efforts and the nation's attention on Tony Abbott and his ultra-conservative vision for Australia. Finally, we can compare the stark reality of Labor's plan for education reform with the Coalition. What will Abbott's policies mean for the NBN, for public health or asylum seekers? How far back would an Abbott government push the campaigns for an Australian republic, Indigenous recognition or marriage equality? The leaders' debates have been suddenly infused with meaning as the Abbott free ride has ground to a halt. Labor have done the right thing, they have put the nation first and they are back in business. The message is clear, not only to ALP supporters but to all Australian democrats who believe in fair play: Rejoice, for a great injustice has been undone!
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