Julia Gillard was elected leader of the Labor Party shortly after 9am this morning and sworn in as Prime Minister just under four hours later at 1pm, along with the new Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan.

In between were some remarkable scenes.

Without a leadership ballot, the customary tension of a leadership battle was lacking, once it became clear Kevin Rudd had bowed to the inevitable and declined to try to stop Gillard.  MPs, some in tears, filtered out of Caucus, with Rudd flanked by party veteran John Faulkner.  The new leader called a press conference for 11am, but it ended up being rescheduled until 11.40.  In the interim, Kevin Rudd held his last press conference in the Prime Ministerial courtyard.  It was packed with journalists and staffers, ten deep.

As anyone who watched the painful and seemingly endless moments that followed can attest, it was one of the more remarkable press conferences in Australian political history, in the same vein as Bob Hawke’s emotional breakdowns as Prime Minister or the stoic Malcolm Fraser’s post-defeat tears.  Rudd visibly struggled repeatedly to speak and, comforted by his wife Thérèse Rein, took an eternity to work through a list of his achievements and thank yous.

By the time Rudd had struggled to an end and farewelled with his famous “I’ve got to zip” sign-off line, it was time for Julia Gillard’s press conference, heavily attended by Labor MPs.  Gillard, flanked by new Deputy Wayne Swan, put in a faultless performance, kicking off with some conservative rhetoric about the importance of hard work and then unveiling the play of the day – the unilateral cancellation of the Government’s RSPT ads, with the invitation that the mining companies do the same.

The mining companies are mid-way through an expensive and very successful advertising campaign and are planning a major direct mail roll-out to marginal electorates; the Government’s own ads were coming up in market research as counter-productive, so Gillard’s commitment was smart politics, appearing to offer an olive branch while in fact neutering her opponents’ most successful weapon and removing a problematic part of the Government’s own campaign on the issue.

Gillard is also evidently determined to neuter criticism that she has not been elected Prime Minister at a general election, saying she would not be moving into the Lodge until she was duly elected, saying she would be living at home in Melbourne and in her flat in Canberra until she was elected.  The Australian Protective Service might have other views about that.

Gillard indicated that she would be retaining Kevin Rudd’s policy of climate change inaction, but promised to “prosecute the case” afresh after the next election, at least suggesting the Rudd-Wong policy of simply treating the issue as a wedge for Labor to use on the Coalition will be abandoned in favour of serious advocacy of the need for a carbon price.

Overall, it was a commanding start by Gillard, and she immediately demonstrated why at the very least she will cut through in her messaging far more effectively than Rudd, a once-savvy political communicator who had become mired in his own verbiage in recent months.  On the score at least, Gillard will be a very different leader to her predecessor.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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