Rudd quits, hints at fight for Australia leadership

The foreign ministers resignation fuels speculation that hes jockeying for top job

Foreign minister Kevin Rudd of Australia resigned Wednesday amid growing speculation that he and his backers in Parliament were seeking to topple prime minister Julia Gillard and regain for him the country’s leadership role.

POWERPOLITICS: KevinRuddwavesgoodbyewhile leaving the WillardHotelonWednesdayinWashington, DC.Ruddresigned early this morningasAustralian foreign minister, setting the stage for a heatedbattle withPrimeMinister Julia Gillardfor leadership of the country.

Rudd, who was displaced a prime minister by Gillard in a 2010 party coup, said in Washington, where he was on an official visit, that he had lost his leader’s support and could no longer to serve in her cabinet.

“I cannot continue to serve as foreign, minister if I do not have the prime minister’s support, and so I have decided to do the honourable thing, and the honourable thing is to resign,” he said early on Wednesday.

But Rudd, who said that he would decide on his future moves after consulting with his family when he returns to Australia on Thursday, also took the opportunity to lash out at  Gillard for failing to repudiate a string of recent public attacks on him by her supporters.

And in what could be a sign of his intentions when Parliament returns to session next week, he implicitly questioned the prime minister’s ability to defeat the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, in elections scheduled for August 2013.  Rudd has consistently polled ahead of both Gillard and Abbott.

“There is one overriding question for my caucus colleagues, and that is who is best placed to defeat Tony Abbott at the next election,” Rudd said.

Gillard, who on Tuesday had insisted to journalists that she continued to enjoy the support of the majority of her governing Labour Party, said in a statement that Rudd had not warned her of his decision to resign.

“I am disappointed that the concerns Rudd has publicly expressed this evening were never personally raised with me, nor did he contact me to discuss his resignation prior to his decision,” she said, adding that she would be holding a news conference on Thursday.

Simmering tensions

Tensions between the pair over Rudd’s ouster and his possible leadership ambitions have been simmering, and his resignation is unlikely to quash the rumours of his backroom jockeying for her job.

Rudd had dismissed the issue when questioned on Monday while attending a gathering in Mexico of the foreign ministers of the Group of 20 major economies. But by early Wednesday, morning, he said that he had decided to resign in order to extricate himself, and the Australian people, from a “soap opera” that was distracting the government from doing its job.

Far from settling the issue, however,  Rudd’s announcement seemed to kick the media frenzy into overdrive in Australia, where a banner headline on the Website of The Sydney Morning Herald summed up what seemed to be the rapidly crystallizing consensus that a showdown was imminent: ‘It’s On: Rudd Quits.’

In addition to the television and newspaper coverage, Ruddvenge became a high-trending tag on Twitter, where backers of  Rudd came to voice their support for the former prime minister. But although many members of the public seemed elated that the long-running dispute was coming to a head, John Wanna, a professor of political science at Australian National University in Canberra, warned that the acrimonious public showdown was a symptom of a “dysfunctional” government that was beginning to “implode.”

 Wanna said that Gillard was an ineffectual political enforcer, unable to instill discipline in her party. He added that she had been hamstrung by the manner in which she attained her office.

He was even less flattering in his portrayal of Rudd.

“His enemy is anyone who stands in his way. It doesn’t matter if it’s Gillard. It doesn’t matter if it’s Abbott,”  Wanna said. “His enemy is anyone who stands in the way of where he wants to be.”

How this drama plays out now depends greatly on how confident each player is of withstanding a party vote.

 At least 35 of the 103 Labour lawmakers in Parliament would have to sign the petition to force a leadership vote, which would then have to be held within three days.

Autocratic leadership

Rudd, a former diplomat who led his party back into power in 2007, is widely derided within the Labour leadership for what has often been described as an autocratic leadership style. But his stunning removal as prime minister in 2010 angered many, and the Australian public continues to display a deep ambivalence toward Gillard, despite significant legislative successes and strong economic growth under her stewardship.

It remains unclear how much support  Rudd actually has within the Labour Party, however, which is one possible reason his supporters have not yet pushed for a ballot. News reports this week have put his support at fewer than 40 members of Parliament, far below what he would need to oust Gillard, but enough to damage her credibility with the public and the party.

“My guess is it’s going to be an anticlimax,” said Wanna, the political scientist. “I’m not sure he could get 30 names.”              

 Julia Gillard has scheduled a vote to determine if her party wishes her to continue as its leader, and therefore as head of the government.

The winner of the leadership vote, scheduled for Monday, will become prime minister.
Gillard promised on Thursday not to seek a position in the cabinet should she lose the leadership contest and pointedly called on Rudd to do the same.

“I ask him to take the same undertaking, that if he does not succeed in this ballot that he will go to the backbench and renounce any further claims to the leadership and act in the interests of the Australian Labour Party and our nation,” she said.

The political drama in 2010 began when some within the Labour Party accused Rudd of leaving them out of decision-making. They struck when he broke two major campaign promises and imposed a 40 per cent tax on certain profits of large mining companies, causing his popularity to plummet. Rudd resigned after it became clear that Gillard’s supporters in Parliament had the numbers to oust him in a party vote.

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