There was a sense of inevitability about Julia Gillard’s fall; the surprise is that it was so long delayed. The Australian Labor Party’s standing is low enough that sooner or later enough MPs would become convinced that their continued presence in the federal parliament demanded a new leader. Or rather an old, new leader, Kevin Rudd. There is nothing unique in what has happened. Gillard’s overthrow is simply another example of the extreme instability of leadership that characterises Australian political parties. The fearsome institution of the ‘spill’, by which parliamentary coups can be staged, and the relentless short-termism of Australian politics, mean that parliamentary leaders are under constant pressure.
Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, staged a successful coup against Malcolm Turnbull, who had staged a coup against Brendan Nelson. Earlier this year Ted Baillieu went to work as the premier of Victoria and ended the day as no one, having been overthrown by a man whom he had originally himself overthrown. Such instability is made worse by the destructive effects of opinion polling. Australian politicians insist that polls are the furthest things from their minds; in fact, they hardly think of anything else. Rudd himself was unseated as prime minister after one bad opinion poll.
But Gillard had particular problems. She was blamed by many for her part in the coup that removed Rudd, and by the policies she was obliged to introduce in order to win parliamentary support after the 2010 election left the Labor Party without a majority. One of these was the immensely unpopular and relentlessly politicised carbon tax, something she had pledged not to introduce. The unceasing attacks of the Murdoch press did much to undermine her popularity in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane. (She remains popular in her outer Melbourne constituency.) Nor was she helped by the moral and political collapse of the Labor Party in New South Wales. Her problems were, in part, the problems of the Labor Party more generally, though she appears to have done nothing about that.
Then there is the question of gender. Gillard herself put it very well. Gender does not explain everything, but it does not explain nothing. The things said and written about her disclosed a misogyny which most thought had disappeared, and represent one of the most discreditable episodes in modern Australian political life – all made worse by the complicity of conservative women politicians and the failure of many journalists (men and women) to take it seriously. There is a party political element to this. It is inconceivable that the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop, were she to become prime minister (she won’t), would be subject to anything like the same abuse.
Gillard has furthermore been a victim of the parochialism and curious immaturity of Australia’s political culture. Australia is as close to heaven on earth as any country can be. By the standards of the rest of the world it is problem-free. It sailed through the financial crisis and has been competently governed in the last six years. The Labor government, despite the immense pressures of the last three years, has a notable record of reform, especially in education and health. Yet all the visitor hears is whingeing about how awful everything is. The experience of the rest of the world is almost entirely ignored. Reforms which actually favour the majority of the electorate are simply discounted. It is exactly the same parochialism that did so much damage to the Whitlam government a generation ago and which, like misogyny, we hoped had disappeared.
What now? Rudd has won, but at a cost. One third of the cabinet has resigned, including some of its most able, and a number are leaving politics altogether – including two of the admirable independents who have supported Gillard. Rudd also has baggage. He was overthrown in 2010 precisely because so many of his colleagues seem to have found him impossible to work with and one bad opinion poll was all they needed. However, Rudd is more popular than Gillard with the voters, which is why MPs swallowed their doubts and backed him, and the change now puts the pressure on the politically vacuous Abbott – which he probably does not welcome. There is also a British interest. From what Rudd has said, he intends to fight the coming election via an attack on Cameron and Osborne. Abbott’s alternatives to Labor policies, he has said, are the ‘slash and burn’ policies of the Conservative Party. The question is how far Australian parochialism will allow that to be the issue.