Australia Trades in Kevin Rudd for First Female Prime Minister—Julia Gillard

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s moderate-left Labor Party replaced him with the country’s first-ever female prime minister, Julia Gillard, today. The intra-party coup d’état came as Rudd’s support waned in the face of unpopular decisions to backtrack on his commitment to pass climate change legislation and his proposal for a “super tax” on Australian mining companies. The brainy leader had come under fire of late for his lack of consultation and didactic style, which did not win him plaudits within his party. Wildly popular as an antidote to Conservative leader John Howard, Rudd was elected decisively just over a year and a half ago. He was one of two Asian leaders—along with President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea—with whom President Barack Obama had ideologically aligned. Rudd’s sudden demise, 10 months before elections were due in Australia, sends a signal that fickle voters who reacted strongly against the conservative regimes of the younger George Bush and his close friend John Howard may be swinging back to the center. Here’s a look at what happened, why, and the implications.

Q1: How did leadership change hands so quickly and unexpectedly in Australia?

A1: Everyone in Australia knew Rudd was in trouble politically, but most assumed the reckoning would come in elections later this year. In the event today in Australia’s capital, Canberra, internal support for Rudd within his party crumbled, and he did not contest a party vote that went unanimously (112-0) in support of Julian Gillard, a 48-year-old immigrant from Wales and trail lawyer who challenged him for the leadership of the party. Rudd’s political base was the electorate, not the party, and when the tide changed after high-profile retractions of his climate change agenda and his effort to push for a 40 percent tax on domestic mining companies, he found himself with little support from within the party or his own administration.

Q2: Why did Rudd’s support erode?

A2: Rudd’s political cannibalization by his own party as a first-term prime minister is rare if not unprecedented. The Chinese-speaking policy wonk had lost internal support because of his style—exemplified by his announcement of new ideas for Asian regional infrastructure without consultation with his national security and foreign policy team—and his precipitous decisions on key issues like climate change, health care, and taxation. His Labor Party moved quickly when it realized that his popularity had seriously waned—his polling against Tony Abbott, the former boxer and leader of the Liberal-National coalition, was behind 40 to 35 percent—and moved to make a change ahead of the deadline for new national elections by early next year.

Q3: What are the implications of the change in government?

A3: Australian politics will likely be quite self-absorbed until the national elections, which will be held late this year or early next. Ms. Gillard’s foreign policy credentials are untested. She will be compelled to focus on immediate priorities, which will include consolidating support within the party, taking control of the government, and preparing for what will certainly be a close fight with opposition leader Tony Abbott.

It is not clear whether Australia, a key U.S. treaty ally, will be represented at the G-20 Summit in Toronto this week, now that Kevin Rudd has hung up his cleats. President Obama had intended to visit Rudd in Australia twice earlier this year, missing both trips due to U.S. domestic political requirements, namely health care and the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Australia’s national security and foreign policy posture are not likely to change significantly under Prime Minister Gillard, but it is clear that for the near term Australia will be internally focused rather than playing a role as a catalyst for peace, security, and trade integration in Asia and globally.

Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


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