Opinion polling in June 2013 showed that Kevin Rudd had a double digit advantage over Julia Gillard as the preferred leader of the Labor Party. While a majority of caucus members remained committed to Gillard as the party's leader in the February 2013 spill motion, June polling showed a likely electoral drubbing for the Gillard Government. Polling also indicated a return of Kevin Rudd would soften Labor's fall from power. This crystallised the need for the Labor caucus to ask pragmatically 'Who do I vote for now?'
Personal loyalty, factional allegiance and union preferences meant little when the Labor caucus faced being reduced to a cricket team and the likelihood of more than a decade in political opposition. While it is now widely acknowledged that Rudd spent his time on the backbench undermining the Gillard Government, a return to Rudd as Labor leader was not done out of any respect for his leadership.
How Labor members voted in the last leadership ballot reflected how they measured short term and long term advantages. In the short term, Rudd might save Labor MP's with margins between five and ten per cent and possible hold the number of Labor Senators. In the long term, a Rudd-led ALP would reasonably expect to sit in Opposition for two terms rather than the three or four terms. In each case pragmatism determined how the caucus voted. Pragmatism may not sit well with the electorate but it is the reality of politics. Only in government can any political party enact their policies.
Reminders of the failed leadership of Rudd between 2007 and 2010 - coupled with his agenda of destabilisation - meant the decision to switch to Rudd may have been personally difficult for some Labor MP's and Senators. Loyalty aside, the Labor Party's future remained the bigger consideration.
While Labor MP's and Senators made their decision to replace Gillard with Rudd, they also left Labor voters to ask 'who do I vote for now?' While there may have been distaste over how Gillard rose to Prime Minister, there seemed little sympathy for Gillard being torn down. Many voters watched the train wreck that was hurtling towards Gillard. She was a leader crippled by Rudd's machinations with key journalists and egged on by senior Liberals, crucified in the media (particularly the Murdoch press), consistently denigrated by former Labor parliamentarians Graham Richardson and Mark Latham on Sky News (another Murdoch affiliate), misrepresented about her policies on a price on carbon, described by 2GB's Alan Jones as 'Juliar' and called 'dishonest and dumb' by the Herald-Sun's Terry McCrann. She was given no credit for Australia securing a seat on the UN Security Council, for standing up to misogyny, for introducing the NDIS or implementing education reform. Her plain cigarette packaging laws were a huge blow for big tobacco yet most of the credit went to Nicola Roxon.
The parliament elected in 2010 relied on a leader who could cobble together a working majority. Gillard, not Abbott, was able to do that. Many thought the parliament would not last, yet it did. Gillard's consensus style leadership – a trait admired in former Labor leader Bob Hawke - was framed as Gillard in bed with the left (the Greens) or the right (such as her relationship with the politically savvy Tony Windsor, a former National Party member). Depending on your politics, she was always in bed with the enemy.
Gillard had faults, many of which she publically acknowledged. Politically, Gillard needed to define her leadership with a narrative that resonated with Australians. Her impressive legislative program went largely unnoticed by the Australian public: in part because of a lack of media space and in part because policy needs to be imagined within a public space that posits a collective good even if there is short term economic cost. Her decision to install Peter Slipper was not transparent, and she should have acted against Craig Thomson earlier. Her past with Slater and Gordon was allowed to run amok – especially in social media – for far too long. Her asylum seeker policies were not effective enough to appease those hardliners who want to 'stop the boats' and only further alienated the left who wanted a more humanitarian approach and a change in the insidious anti-asylum seeker narratives of 'illegals' and 'queue jumpers'.
The return of Kevin Rudd to the leadership did give Labor a positive push in the polls. However, it was never about Rudd winning. It was just about saving the Labor furniture. How much furniture seems still uncertain. Daily polls say that Labor is in trouble but the Rudd experiment will be successful if he stops a landslide.
The problem is that as the election rolls on, voters are remembering the reasons Rudd lost the leadership in the first place. His folksy 'gotta zip' lines, asking and answering his own questions, flipping on promise to run a positive, policy driven election campaign, his overreaching effort to protect his future leadership with a policy bullied through caucus that will make him hard to get rid while simultaneously talking about party democratisation, and his lack of future policy vision, all leaves voters uncertain. Rudd's only saving grace may be Abbott.
Polls have consistently shown mistrust in the electorate about Abbott. Regardless of his efforts, he has a political past that makes voters suspicious of his personal ideology and states that have reverted to the Liberal Party are facing public service cuts – an agenda synonymous with Liberals – and one that makes voters nervous about their jobs and the availability of government services.
For Labor voters who could see through Rudd's backstabbing, denied an opportunity to show their electoral support for Gillard, who do they vote for? Labor's left may continue to drift towards the Greens however their preference vote will likely drift back to Labor. Labor's right will drift to the Liberals and stay there. Kevin Rudd is no Paul Keating and does not inspire the 'true believers'.
Gillard might be the only Labor voter smiling on election night. She may not have been able to get rid of Rudd, something that many argued she should have done by having him expelled from the ALP for his back-stabbing, but the voters in Griffith just might. While there is little indication that Labor will win the 7 September election, the prospect of the ALP returned to government with Rudd not being returned in Griffith would put a smile on Gillard's face and on those who thought Gillard deserved a fair go.
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