If there is a case for Kevin Rudd to return as the Prime Minister of Australia it hinges on one simple proposition. Namely, that Julia Gillard cannot lead the Australian Labor Party to victory at the next Federal Election.
If you accept that proposition then you should consider the consequences of a Gillard defeat. You should think about what it means for the longevity of Labor’s reform agenda and for the future direction of this country.
An election victory for Gillard would require an extraordinary turnaround. In contrast, if the polls are anything to go by, Rudd is better placed. It is a fair point that the country cannot be governed by opinion polls, but if they did favour the Gillard camp then they would certainly be mentioning them.
There are four arguments that can be made in favour of Rudd returning as Prime Minister.
First, Kevin Rudd enjoys a broad base of support and trust in the Australian community. This is one of the crucial differences between Rudd and Gillard. The public has never really accepted the way in which a sitting Prime Minister was removed in his first-term in office. It has been hard to accept how Gillard and Swan, who were party to the subversion of the Cabinet process, could use that as a reason to replace Rudd. It has become apparent that one of the reasons for Rudd’s dip in the polls, the backtracking on the carbon tax, was brought about by the people who engineered his removal.
All of that, along with the fact that Gillard was not elected in 2010 by a majority of voters, has combined to raise doubts about her legitimacy.
Second, Rudd’s weaknesses and Gillard’s virtues are over-stated and vice versa. Rudd made a mistake in not effectively using the Cabinet process. He apparently failed to delegate tasks and can over-work his staff. These are all problems that can easily be fixed.
Gillard’s strength is that by all accounts she is an effective manager. However, the reform agenda that she is managing is one designed in great part by Kevin Rudd. Whether Gillard is a reformer is less clear. She inherited the carbon tax agenda. She has delivered little on education, though she has not yet had time to respond to the Gonski Report.
The Gillard supporters have sent out mixed messages. When she became Prime Minister we were told that she was a professional politician. The ‘real Julia’, the no carbon tax pledge and the tent embassy fiasco amongst others have belied that claim. Now we’ve been told that Julia is a better policy person than she is a politician. Yet, the MySchools project, the Building Education policy, the failed Malaysia and Timor solutions and the back down on the pokies do not support that claim. There is no doubt that Gillard is smart and capable, but at this point her policy and political fumbles at least balance, if not outweigh, her policy successes.
The attacks on both politicians have been over the top. Gillard has endured some very nasty smears by sections of the media and from some elements within the Coalition. The ‘Ju-liar’ jibe with its overtones of anti-Semitism was a low point. One of her most admirable qualities has been her dignity in the face of the insults. Even for someone who does not support her it has been sad to see the leadership tension take its toll. In some of her media appearances Prime Minister Gillard now looks tired and strained.
The remarks that Wayne Swan and Tony Burke made about Rudd were unedifying. Yet, notwithstanding his removal from office in 2010, they both worked with him as Prime Minister and then as Foreign Minister from 2007 through to 2012.
Rudd is clearly highly intelligent. He has a strong grasp of a number of the serious policy issues facing Australia and he is able to articulate a vision for the future. Rudd did lead Australia through the global financial crisis. He has a holistic grasp of Australia’s economic future; he sees the linkage between education in maths and the sciences to the economy, the need for a sound industry policy and a long term engagement in Asia.
Third, the consequence of an electoral defeat for the Gillard Government is the election of an Abbott Government. While, I personally think that for a host of reasons an Abbott Government would be preferable to a Gillard Government, there are significant policy differences between the two. There are a number of issues such as the mining tax, the Gonski Report on education, the carbon tax, asylum seekers, gambling reforms and the like, on which Abbott may pursue an agenda that is unpalatable to Labor and Greens voters.
Fourth, Kevin Rudd is best placed to lead Labor to victory in the next election. Really, this is the one thing that the next caucus vote should boil down to – not whether Rudd or Gillard is ‘nice’ or a better manager, but whether Labor can win. If many of the Ministers, who have so publicly and spitefully dumped on Rudd, really believe in their reform agenda, then they should make their decision on the basis of who is best placed to ensure the longevity of that reform agenda.
Rudd’s removal in 2010 was hasty and ill-considered. Labor suffered an electoral backlash in the 2010 election. It could rectify the situation and rebuild its rapport with the broader electorate. However, that depends on the Labor caucus and on whether personal pride will outweigh belief in their reform agenda.