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The Virtues of Standing Fast: The Lessons in the Fall of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

It’s not often that a leader who came to office with the highest popular vote total for his party in nearly three decades is ousted before he has had a chance to face the voters a second time. Its even rarer that his fall follows two years as one of his country’s most popular Prime Ministers. And it is almost unheard of for a party insider to call his leader a crypto-fascist. Yet that is exactly what an Australian Labor Party insider used in regards of now-former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, noting that “This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party. Now that his only faction, Newspoll, has deserted him he is gone.”

The fall of Kevin Rudd, Australia’s first Labor Prime Minister in 11 years, came as a shock to observers with few expecting it to occur as quickly or decisively as it did. Less than a week ago he appeared largely secure, and while a number of commentators, including myself for, were working on pieces suggesting he faced challenges as his government appealed to the Australian people for a second term, few expected the collapse to come so quickly. All in all, the leadership coup which toppled Kevin Rudd occurred in half a day, with less than twelve hours between the announcement of a challenge by his deputy, Julia Gillard, and his decision to resign in the face of almost certain defeat.

The immediate cause of the coup was the crushing defeat suffered by Rudd’s Labor party in a by-election at a state level in the New South Wales seat of Penrith. Normally this might not have mattered immensely, but the by-election is likely to be the last major electoral battle that will occur in Australia before the country goes to the polls, perhaps as early as August. With signs ranging from the decision of both parties to have their retiring members make their valedictory speeches this month to reports that both the governing Labor Party and the opposition Liberal National Coalition have reserved space for campaign headquarters, all indications seem to point to new elections.

As such, the result in Penrith took on a serious note. While Penrith was not a completely safe Labor seat -it required a swing of 9.2% to deliver it to the Liberals, substantially above the 6.9% they needed to win government at the state level – Labor had failed to win it only once in the last 40 years. In the end however, it was not the result that shocked observers so much as the margin by which it was delivered. The Liberals recorded a swing of nearly 26% in the two-party preferred vote, Australia’s system of preferential voting, which is similar to the proposed alternative vote electoral system being discussed in the UK.

To be fair, the shift represented by the Penrith by-election is not unknown – a similar by-election in Sydney in the fall of 2008 showed a swing of 23% to the Liberals. Nevertheless, it was a mortal threat to Rudd exactly because of the reasons outlined by the Labor insider above. Rudd, who had been swept to power on a campaign focused on bringing about change after eleven years of conservative rule, had alienated every major constituency in his party such that the only thing keeping him in office was his popularity. And when that was gone, to paraphrase the insider “so was he.”

Below are the results of the Penrith By-Election:

2007 2PP
2010 2PP
Christian Democrats
At first it may not seem apparent why Rudd’s fate may be important beyond the shores of Australia. But in many ways Rudd’s election and subsequent problems mirrored those of another candidate of change, and his difficulties may well preview the challenges Obama would have faced had he buckled and failed to pass health-care in February, as many observers urged him to do. And the lesson from Australia seems to be a reinforcement of the axiom that “one who stands for nothing, is nothing.”
At first, any comparison between Australia and the US may seem odd. Australia, after all, has a parliamentary system of government in which the Prime Minister is elected by a majority of the House of Representatives rather than the voters directly. Yet, it is arguably one of the most “presidential” of the Westminster systems, one in which leaders debates are an electoral institution, rather than a novelty as in the UK, and where party loyalty is often far more mutable. Partially this is due to the preferential voting system that makes minority governments all but unheard- of, and partially to the dominance of the political system since the Second World War by a few strong individuals. While the total number of Prime Ministers at 11 is only one-less than the UK had over the same period, 4 of them accounted for 43 years between them, with Liberal Robert Menzies serving for 16 consecutive years in the 1950s and 60s. John Howard served for 11 years from 1996 to 2007, and if his triumphs in 1998, 2001, and 2004 were about his leadership style, so too was his defeat in 2007.
John Howard, while undoubtedly being a strong Prime Minister, was never quite a popular one. He was too conservative in politics and too abrasive in style to enjoy the sort of broad popularity that a Blair or Reagan enjoyed. His victories in 1998 and 2001 were close-run things, with the Liberal-National Coalition losing the popular vote to the Labor party 51-49 in the former, and winning it by the same margin in the latter. In between the two, he recorded some of the lowest poll ratings ever achieved by an Australian Prime Minister. Yet when it mattered the voters were there. In a sense one could draw a parallel with former US President George W.  Bush, and not just because of the close personal relationship between the two men and similar politics.
Howard’s political trajectory followed a similar pattern to that of his American counterpart. By 2004, it seemed his luck might well have run-out. With an unpopular war in Iraq and with voter fatigue dragging him down domestically it seemed his luck had run out, but a controversial Labor leader, and a strong campaign, allowed him to win another term by a surprisingly large margin.
After 2004, George Bush had the luxury of not having to consider reelection, and was content to watch his political situation deteriorate over the next few years with something akin to equanimity. Howard, who should likely have retired after his triumph, instead seemed revitalized by it, launching an agenda more ambitious than ever. Even as the 2007 elections approached he seemed utterly convinced he could repeat his 2004 feat, despite polls showing his party down as much as 20 points in the polls.
Unfortunately what he had not bargained on was that the new Labor leader would be an inoffensive former diplomat, Kevin Rudd, who calmly ran a campaign focused on restoring Australia’s place in the world. This meant restoring relations with countries like Indonesia, improving relations with China, and dealing with challenges like global warming, which Rudd declared was the “greatest moral challenge of our generation”.
By contrast the Liberals had few issues, and with even the US seemingly turning against George Bush, Howard’s strongly pro-American tilt was a liability. Howard, speaking about the threat international terror, immigration, and staking out socially conservative views, seemed out-of-date in late 2008. In the end, the Labor party won a comfortable victory, and Howard’s humiliation was made complete when he lost his own seat.
Kevin Rudd took over as one of Australia’s most popular politicians, but things seemed to move much less rapidly than many of his supporters had hoped. Rudd reiterated his determination to keep Australian troops in Afghanistan, and went so far as to block a number of progressive policies, intervening to invalidate a law passed by the local government of the Australian Capital Territory legalizing Gay Marriage.
On the major issue, global warming, and its policy heart, the Emissions Trading Scheme or ETS, effectively identical Obama’s proposed “Cap and Trade” system, the government seemed in no hurry. The inclination seemed to be to wait for Barack Obama to take office in the US to join a world-wide effort rather than to push it through unilaterally. While it was widely noted that the Liberal-National Coalition’s strength in the Senate allowed them to block it, it was also noted that the Prime Minister in Australia has the ability to call a so-called “double-dissolution” election in which both the House and the entire Senate are up at one time, rather than half the Senate being elected in 3 year increments as is normal. It was noted that the Labor Party’s lead in the polls; as much as 20 points throughout much of 2008 and early 2009, would likely have allowed them to win a majority on their own in such an election, and a guaranteed one when combined with the Greens.
Rudd’s confidence was likely increased by the chaos in the opposition. Peter Costello, Howard’s deputy and presumed successor, retired from politics after the 2007 defeat, and Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate Liberal from Sydney, was narrowly defeated by the mostly unknown but more right-wing former Defense Minister Brendan Nelson, who struggled to break double digits in polls on the preferred Prime Minister. In June of 2008, Nelson, trailing by 30 points, and tired of sniping from the Turnbull camp, called a surprise leadership ballot, which he perhaps less surprisingly lost. Malcolm Turnbull, the charismatic moderate from Sydney took over the leadership.
On paper Turnbull should have improved things for the Liberals. He was modern, socially liberal, and believed in fashionable things, including sharing Rudd’s belief that battling climate change was the moral issue of our time. Initially he did improve things marginally. But he faced the problem facing any leader ideologically out of step with his party – constant back-stabbing, incessant negative leaks to the media, and constant plotting. That he proved gaffe-prone did not help matters, and as he consistently failed to make headway against Labor’s lead in the polls, back-room sniping and leaking turned to outright rebellion.
Rudd seemed to assume that he could rely on Turnbull to at least pass Cap and Trade through the senate at any time, while at the same time hoping that doing so would maximize damage to the opposition. As such they seemed to deliberately strong out the issue so as to maximize the damage to Turnbull, while still expecting him to help pass it. He might even have been able to, or at least able to deliver enough abstentions among his senators for it to pass had Rudd returned from the Copenhagen conference in 2009 with a plan for worldwide action under American leadership. But if Copenhagen was a temporary setback for Barrack Obama’s plans to battle climate change, it was a disaster for Rudd’s. It left Australia to act alone, in the middle of a recession, and this was something the Liberal senators and the party refused to do. In December of 2009, Turnbull was challenged for the leadership, and lost the run-off not to the expected winner, Joe Hockey, but to one of the most right-wing members of the former Howard Government, former Health Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott rapidly moved to block the ETS program in the Senate, and Rudd, rather than facing down the senate with a double-dissolution, announced that implementation of the ETS would be delayed until 2013 at the earliest.
From that point on nothing has gone right for the Labor government. In December, the Labor party still had a lead of 16 points in the Morgan poll, as opposed to 2 points last week. On paper this should not have been the case. By all accounts, the nomination of the Conservative Abbott was universally expected to seal the doom of the Liberal party. A former trainee priest dubbed the “Mad Monk”, Abbott is an outspoken social conservative who had a history of opposition to gay rights, abortion, and stem cell research, and favored a tough line on both immigration and aboriginal policy. Many Labor members rejoiced at the thought of running against what they saw as the the worst example of the Howard years.
And perhaps that has been Labor’s problem. With any action on ETS delayed until 2013, and the federal government not only taking an oppositional stance to social reforms like gay marriage but outright blocking them at the state level, Labor has had little to run on except opposition to Abbott. And it is far from a foregone conclusion that such a strategy cannot work. Howard famously managed to turn 2004 Labor leader Mark Latham into a figure of hate, the success of which is testified to by a June 15th poll finding that only 4% of Australians had a favorable opinion of Latham, compared to 61% with a negative view. But the Labor attacks on Abbott have so far failed to take effect, and if anything have backfired. When Abbott first became leader, Rudd led him in the Morgan poll’s preferred Prime Minister Question by a 60 point margin, 78% to 18%. Last week that lead had shrunk to 48% to 38%, a lead of 10.
Part of the problem may have been that the Howard years aren’t looking quite so bad as they did a few years ago. Contrary to being a hated figure, as he arguably was when he left office, Howard, according to recent polls, is now viewed the most favorably of any Prime Minister of the last 30 years, with 51% having a “good” impression of his tenure compared with 26% who rated it generally poorly. This is far better than Rudd or Abbott’s numbers which are 38/34 and 30/34 respectively. And polls show that the public does not see why they should reject Abbott because of his “extreme” positions on global warming or gay marriage when the Rudd government has demonstrated similar positions.
As a result, despite the efforts of the Labor party to make the upcoming election about Abbott and the opposition, increasingly it was shaping up to be referendum on the incumbent government, and one that  Rudd looked very likely to lose. As Julia Gillard, his deputy, noted in her challenge, by dropping ETS, Rudd abandoned any affirmative reason to support Labor. At the same time by adopting conservative issues on foreign affairs and social issues, he made it difficult for Labor’s attacks on Abbott to stick. After all, how could Abbott be an extremist if the government held generally the same views on the issues? In the end, the government was left with a campaign based on running as the lesser of two evils, without any clear way of distinguishing themselves as the lesser of the two.
While his failure to make progress against Abbott was the final nail in the coffin for Rudd, his rise and fall has implications for politicians outside of Australia. In the US, where Democrats lack the option of dropping Obama before the midterms, or even realistically before the 2012 elections, they are putting their faith in Sarah Palin and the “extremist” Tea Party to save them from defeat by alienating middle-of-the- road voters. There is a warning, however, in Rudd’s failure, for Democrats who expect a fear-mongering campaign against Palin or the Tea Party movement to deliver them victory. The reason the Labor party is currently being forced to run a campaign based around demonization of the leader of the opposition rather than their own achievements is because they are perceived as having so few achievements to run on. Obama too faces disenchantment with his base, and if voters in Australia do not let fear of the “extremist” Tony Abbott prevent them from voting out Kevin Rudd, then perhaps Democratic strategists should find a better strategy than simply waiting for their opposition to destroy themselves.
The evidence indicates that contrary towards the accepted view, obstruction, even of an ostensibly popular program like the ETS, actively helped the opposition by rallying their own supporters and dispiriting the government’s, whereas the opposition’s support for the plan under Turnbull only divided them and made them look disorganized. In fact, that obstruction arguably moved the debate, making ETS unpopular, and forcing the government to drop it from their political platform. This is not to say that the Liberal-National coalition will win; they are still marginally behind within the margin of error in polls, and there is still significant infighting over candidates in winnable seats, including two who are under the age of 21, and facing challenges for that reason. But obstruction has carried them from the threshold of a historical defeat in 2008 and 2009, to the verge of victory in 2010.
Obama did not imitate Rudd in retreating when health care ran into difficulties, and Rudd’s fall provides evidence that as bad as the political fallout from that passage might be, that the consequences of the abandonment of such an effort after so many resources were expanded on it would have been far worse. Nevertheless, Obama should be worried that if obstruction still manages to carry the otherwise unelectable Mr. Abbott to Canberra, that perhaps he needs another strategy other than running against Republican extremism if he wishes to win reelection.

This piece was composed by Research Assistant Daniel Berman. Originally composed with the intent of predicting Rudd’s future difficulties, it ended up cataloging his fall, reminding us all of the mortality that faces world leaders each and every day.