The execution of Kevin Rudd was done quickly and efficiently overnight. Not since Andrew Peacock’s surprise coup against John Howard in 1989 has there been a political assassination this ruthless.
Rudd insisted last night he would stand for the leadership but already Rudd allies were saying before midnight the momentum was against him and he would struggle to be competitive, let alone fend off Gillard. By this morning, it was apparent that Gillard was building a convincing majority. Rudd’s decision to save face and spare his party a contest will be one of the few grace notes of his leadership in recent weeks.
While there is talk of dire internal polling, Rudd’s leadership if anything seemed to recover slightly this week as Labor’s polling position stabilised and Rudd announced a win for the Government on the NBN, on the back of wins last week on parental leave. However, revelations that his chief of staff Alister Jordan had been canvassing levels of support within Caucus appeared to become the focus for much of the anger and frustration amongst MPs toward Rudd and his office in recent weeks. Backbenchers spoke of being infuriated on learning that Jordan, rather than Rudd himself, had been contacting some MPs to ascertain whether they still supported Rudd.
This isn’t merely about MPs’ egos – although that is always part of the equation — but about the growing perception in recent weeks that Rudd and his office either didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem they faced or had no idea what to do about it. The Rudd PMO has become a byword for arrogance amongst many MPs, but Rudd’s consistently high approval ratings over the last two years silenced any criticism. But once the polls turned, Rudd’s team failed to respond – indeed, some spoke of them “retreating into the bunker”.
The revelations about Jordan had a “last straw” effect of showing MPs the changes they believed were necessary to save Labor from defeat weren’t happening.
The revelations also apparently deeply offended Gillard herself, who has been a model of a Deputy Prime Minister, ruthlessly parsing her statements about leadership to indicate she had no intention of doing anything other than waiting to succeed Rudd.
The result was factional leaders moving yesterday to demand that Rudd call a leadership ballot and that Gillard stand in it.
Rudd’s leadership was always based on his appeal to the electorate; while it’s easy to overplay his lack of traditional Labor background (for example, Bob Hawke was widely disliked by the Labor Caucus when PM despite his extensive links throughout Labor and the unions), Rudd’s only real strength was the perception he was a winner, and Labor was prepared to tolerate virtually anything from him as long as he remained a winner. His collapse in the polls removed that cover, exposing his micro-management, his office’s half-smart media management and his increasing political tone deafness to sceptical scrutiny.
Rudd’s collapse in the polls started once the Liberal Party united behind Tony Abbott. While Abbott himself has consistently trailed Rudd in voter approval, the lack of the sort of ongoing Liberal leadership problems that have persistently distracted the media and voters since 2006 saw much greater focus on Rudd and his management style. But it was Abbott’s aggression that so rattled Rudd that he made what in retrospect was the profound error of turning his back in the CPRS, the error the sent him into freefall and ultimately out of the Prime Ministership.
Still, Labor has now addressed its leadership problem. There’s one leader less popular with Australians than Kevin Rudd, and he runs the Liberals.