Despite win, Gillard faces tough future

Prime minister Julia Gillard fended off a leadership challenge by her former foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, handing him a resounding defeat in a vote by members of Parliament from the governing Labour Party.

After winning an unexpectedly strong 71-31 vote, Gillard called for the party to turn to the business of governing. But analysts warned that she had little time to win back Australia’s disaffected electorate before her lack of popularity hobbled her government and, perhaps, Labour’s chances in an election scheduled for next year. Gillard sought to close the chapter on what has been described as the country’s most toxic leadership dispute in a generation.

“This issue, the leadership question, is now determined,” she said at a news conference. “You, the Australian people, rightly expect the government to focus on you – for you to be at the centre of everything government does. I can assure you that this political drama is over and now you are back at centre stage where you should properly be.” Rudd, who was replaced as prime minister by Gillard in a 2010 party coup, resigned as foreign minister during a visit to Washington last week. Gillard then called the leadership vote to try to end a political crisis that had been prompted by speculation that Rudd and his supporters were seeking to oust her.

Another challenge

After the vote, Rudd acknowledged Gillard’s victory and declared it “well past time that these wounds were healed.” Analysts had estimated that Rudd needed at least 35 votes to mount another challenge for the leadership in the short term. “The caucus has spoken,” Rudd told reporters. “I accept the caucus’ verdict without qualification and without rancour.” Rudd promised not to initiate another challenge before the next parliamentary election and tried to strike a conciliatory note with former colleagues in the cabinet, many of whom had issued stinging personal attacks against him in recent days.

“To those who have been a little more willing in their public character analysis of me in recent times, could I say the following: I bear no grudges, I bear no one any malice and if I’ve done wrong to anyone in what I have said or in what I have done to them, I apologise,” he said.

Another challenge for the party leadership by Rudd is not out of the question, according to some analysts. But the Labour Party’s greater concern involves consistently low polls numbers since late 2010 for it and Gillard. In a survey released Monday by Newspoll, based on polling conducted Thursday to Sunday, the opposition coalition was leading the Labour Party, 53 perent to 47 per cent.

The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, also continued to lead Gillard 38 per cent to 36 per cent in the survey. Abbott, in comments to reporters in Canberra, dismissed any talk of a rebound for Labour after the party vote Monday. He framed the leadership vote as “not so much a new start for this prime minister, but merely a stay of execution.”

Perhaps the most ominous result in the survey for Gillard was that despite her supporters’ withering attacks on Rudd, respondents still preferred him over her as the leader of the Labour Party by almost 2 to 1: 53 per cent to 28 per cent.

Despite having won the “most decisive victory we’ve ever seen in a challenge against a leader in Australia,” said Norman Abjorensen, a political scientist at Australian National University in Canberra, Gillard will have to turn around the national poll results within three months to stave off another challenge from Rudd.

To do so, Abjorensen said, Gillard will have to showcase her legislative victories, like the introduction of the largest emissions trading programme outside the European Union and the strong economic growth that has occurred on her watch. “The challenge now, both tactically and strategically for the government, is to try to get the whole political discussion in Australia back to policy, back to achievements and back to goals for the future,” Abjorensen said.

In some circles, however, Gillard is viewed as unlikely to emerge with a victory in the next parliamentary election, said Michael Wesley, executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent research institute in Sydney. Allies of Australia have begun sizing Abbott up as her likely successor, he said. “If anything, I think this has made Abbott more likely to come into power, and I think that’s already starting to be factored in,” Wesley said. “From what I can tell, the foreign diplomatic community is making a great effort to get to know Abbott and his foreign policy positions.”

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