Kevin Rudd’s dramatic decision to resign in the early hours of the morning in Washington has caught Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the hop.
In response, Prime Minister Gillard has issued a brief statement expressing “disappointment” that Kevin Rudd never personally raised his concerns with her, and promising to address a press conference tomorrow.
Leading academics discuss the implications of the move, and analyse the strategy behind Rudd’s appeal to end the reign of Labor’s “faceless men”.
Dr Norman Abjorensen, ANU
Kevin Rudd has pre-empted any possibility of a pre-emptive strike by Julia Gillard – he’s the first one out the blocks. Now it depends where he goes after he comes back and does what he’s talking about: consulting. Is he going to challenge for the leadership? Is he going to quit his seat?
If we had what’s been described as a phony war until now, this is really game on. The contenders have identified themselves. This is it.
What happens next? It’s how the numbers play out. I’ve had two conversations in the last half hour with MPs. One of them tells me Rudd’s got no more than 25 [MPs backing him], another assures me he’s got 40. There are going to be a lot of phone calls made over the next few days, a lot of heavying. It’s very hard to predict how things are going to play out.
Everything is in a great state of flux. There’s the very strong possibility that Rudd’s surprise announcement in Washington is going to create a bit of a backlash. It was well after midnight over there, there were very few Australian journalists there, he didn’t take any questions.
He’s talking about a “stealth attack” on the prime minister in reference to himself, but this is very much a stealth attack on his own prime minister.
In the long term Labor’s in very, very real trouble. The primary vote is at a very flat line. It’s very hard to come back from here 18 months out. The most they could hope for would be to try to minimise losses at the next election, but that might be the uppermost thought in their minds when the meet on Tuesday to try to resolve this issue.
Something like that will probably result in Julia Gillard standing aside, possibly a very safe pair of hands like Simon Crean being entrusted with the task losing the election but not losing it by as much as some people might fear.
I don’t think we should ever underestimate Kevin Rudd. This has been quite a remarkable counterstrike.
Dr Mark Rolfe, University of New South Wales
This is the umpteenth round of Rudd’s mind games, aka guerrilla warfare. His main strategy all along has been to, of course, deny he’s involved in any sort of leadership challenge and [say] he’s just been getting on with the job of foreign minister. All along, therefore, he’s just been playing mind games, which was his strategy with Howard during the 2007 election.
Now he can return to Australia as the injured party and flounce back on Friday trailing his coat, saying “I’ve been a good boy”, which is essentially what he was saying in that resignation speech, and aiming for high moral ground. You can see from his very careful arguments that Gillard must be agreeing with Crean because she’s not criticising him for doing anything untoward.
Rudd’s got the luxury of really dictating the moves in this game because she’s in a quandary. Now, he may return, she may call a leaderships spill on Monday and he may just sit back and not contest, especially if knows he hasn’t got the numbers. He’s got the luxury of time and his guerrilla warfare on side. And in guerrilla warfare you never come straight out on the battlefield if you haven’t got the numbers with you. And she’s got no assurance that he will join battle with her on Monday.
So she’s stuck with him. Let’s say a leadership spill is called, he doesn’t contest, he sits on the backbench the mind games continue, she continues to bleed. Time, relatively speaking, is still on his side.
Rudd’s waiting for enough numbers to come his way. Part of the mind games over the past week or so has been [saying] “Rudd’s got 30 to 40”. That’s talking up. He’s got below 30, and with a caucus of 103, obviously that’s not enough.
So the game, therefore, is for him to just appear to the Australian public as if he’s been a good boy all along, when in fact we know he’s a sneak. He’d been sneaking behind Beazley’s back, which is how he got the leadership in the first place. He’s been sneaking around since 2010 if not before. He was the one who was responsible for those leaks in the middle of the 2010 election, which drained Gillard and the Labor party.
The interesting thing may be that Gillard may in fact think, “Well, there’s no way to recover this situation, I might resign for the good of the party.” It’s a suggestion that’s really out there, but she’s a person who’s more concerned with the good of the party than Rudd, because his overblown ego is just so manic.
Some may wonder about his resignation overseas in the middle of doing his job representing the country. But in his resignation speech he’s harping on about these “faceless men”, even though his faceless men have been stirring the numbers against Gillard. Nevertheless, his faceless men are not identified [as such], all the faceless men are associated with Gillard, and you can see in Tony Abbott’s statement tonight that it’s an easy rhetorical device to pick up on. Everybody’s been able to lambast these awful faceless men, but there are faction leaders on all sides in every party, and yet at the moment these so called “faceless men” are identified with Gillard, and the dominating people around her within the party.
And of course there’s this whole Queensland election thing. If he was so concerned about the effect on the Queensland Labor party and his good friend Anna Bligh, he’d come out with a clear statement saying, “I’m not going to seek the prime ministership”. But you know he’s not going to do that, and in fact this puts pressure on the Labor Party about the Queensland election, rather diminish any damage, which is his claim.
Dr Paul Strangio, Monash University
There was always a level of unsustainability having a former Prime Minister on the front bench with someone who actually deposed that person. In fact, there’s a great historical note here that the last time this happened in Australia was 1971 with John Gorton, who was rolled by Billy McMahon. Similar sort of situation, it lasted for a time but proved to be unsustainable. It was always an extremely difficult situation.
What’s happened today, we see again elements of the disconnect between the public image of Kevin Rudd in that media performance, which was very carefully crafted. He’s appealed to the Australian people, he’s attacked the faceless men, and so on. It’s a very strategic, tactical message that he is sending out.
But the majority in caucus see Kevin Rudd through a very different prism. So much of what has been going on recently with leadership speculation, where Rudd has been running a carefully crafted campaign of destabilisation of Julia Gillard through the media, this has been entrenching views within the party and Rudd and his supporters. The problem for Gillard is there’s this disjunction between how the majority of caucus see Rudd and how the public still tends to perceive him. And that’s an ongoing problem for Labor.
Now the Gillard camp is sending all the signals out that they’re very confident on the numbers but there is still that hurdle that the public still sees Rudd through a different light.
This also goes to the bigger problem that with the overthrowing of Rudd, yes there was the polls but there was always the problem of his leadership style. That was enormously significant. But you still hear members of the public say, “we don’t understand why Kevin Rudd was deposed,” and this is an ongoing millstone for Gillard.
How it’s going to play out? It seems very unpredictable in the longer term. In the short term, it seems the Gillard camp is very confident of the numbers. What will happen from here is more difficult to know because whatever has happened, the leadership might be, for the time-being, resolved early next week.
But we can only assume that there has been tremendous damage to the Government and to the Labor brand. The average member of the public sees this as a very unedifying leadership squabble. So there’s terrible dynamics being played out but it needed to be resolved, and now, at least for the short term, there will be some sort of denouement next week. But longer term the government is badly, badly winged by this.
Professor Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide
I can’t remember a foreign minister specifically quitting while overseas, but it’s certainly not unusual while a leadership challenge is being prepared for people to basically resign. Keating challenged Hawke from the backbench eventually, and also remember of course that Tony Abbott and a number of others resigned from the Liberal shadow cabinet to challenge Malcolm Turnbull over the carbon pollution reduction scheme.
I think it’s a bit rich for him to depict himself as a victim, because there has been a long period of destabilisation of the Gillard government, and after all Rudd himself has quite a history, according to journalists' reports, of destabilising Labor leaders.
In terms of “faceless men”, I think specifically he’s talking about (Simon) Crean, but he clearly isn’t faceless, but presumably he’s also referring to the likes of Mark Arbib, Bill Shorten and so on. But Rudd’s problem in caucus was not just the factional leaders. He lost the prime ministership because he had virtually no support in caucus. The factional leaders by themselves would not have been able to remove him. It was only because he had so little support that he wasn’t even prepared to stand against Gillard that he lost the position of Prime Minister.
If Rudd retired from politics, he’d risk bringing the government down and he’d be considered one of those eternally disloyal Labor members of parliament. That would be a huge step to take, to resign, especially given there do not seem to be sufficient grounds to this.
The more he does this, the more he risks that some of the people who has reportedly been talking to will come out of the woodwork and say, “No, hang on, there were good reasons why Gillard and Simon Crean were concerned”. It’s a risky strategy for him to take if he’s going to depict himself as a victim.
Gillard is obviously in a terrible position, and so are Labor members of parliament. The problem they have now is to work out is, has Kevin Rudd changed? Has he really changed? Holding press conferences in the small hours of the morning might suggest he hasn’t. Even if he hasn’t changed, does he have sufficient popularity to save far more seats than Gillard would even if Labor loses? That’s very hard to charge, because at present he has the sympathy vote, and it’s not entirely sure what his public support will be if he actually becomes prime minister, and then faces the same policy dilemmas that Gillard had. Will he be able to keep delivering in a minority government situation if the Greens and the cross-benchers agree to support him, because one of his previous problems was getting policy through and implemented?
But the Gillard government is obviously in extremely dire straits. This is one of the lowest points historically for the Labor party, and even if you allow for combined support of the Labor and the Greens, you’re still looking at a Liberal victory. So these are really desperate times for Labor, and the members of parliament have an incredible dilemma about what decision to make. Of course, a third candidate could still emerge.
William Bowe, University of Western Australia
I’m a bit surprised. I think the drill was supposed to be that Gillard was weighing up whether or not to fire Kevin Rudd. I can’t presume to know the in and outs of what’s going on here, but presumably Rudd has been hearing things about what’s been planned. Possibly he anticipated that he would be going out one way or the other, and it was better to seize the initiative and do it on his own terms.
I would be very surprised if we don’t see some sort of leadership spill next week. I suppose it’s always possible that Rudd’s going to weigh up the numbers and decide that it’s more in his interest to keep his powder dry but that would be a big defeat for him if it happened. So he has probably taken the calculation that we’ll be getting a very exciting opinion poll coming out on Monday. I think Rudd may have calculated that that will put a little more momentum behind his push and perhaps in the wake of that bring him up to a level where he has at least enough support to emerge from it looking credible, even if he can’t win.
In terms of the Queensland election, I don’t actually think this is in prospect, but if this was all resolved in Kevin Rudd’s favour next week I think the Queensland Labor Party would be doing a little jig. But given that’s not likely to be what’s happening it’s probably yet another disaster for the Labor campaign in Queensland, which is beyond redemption under any circumstances.
Federally, if you want to look at the big picture, the whole thing is a great human tragedy. All of these personal conflicts and rivalries as best we can tell have resulted in what’s going to be a quite short-lived Labor government after a decade in the wilderness.
Dr Craig Mark, Macquarie University
Kevin Rudd is very much trying to make the case that he’s been treated unfairly. It’s very ironic, given he’s been using his own backers, his own so-called faceless men, to canvass the numbers for his own leadership spill. Today he was very much speaking to the public, rather than his own majority caucus colleagues. He has the biggest public appeal, more than Julia Gillard and other potential Labor leaders, and it seems he’s trying to resort to that, a public image that is his biggest political weapon, to try to get his caucus colleagues to switch to him from Gillard, but it remains to be seen whether they could be convinced.
His performance today certainly adds to the drama and surprise of the whole thing. It’s certainly unique. I can’t recall a foreign minister resigning overseas before. It’s pre-empting any possibility that Gillard would have sacked him upon his return, so if the rumblings were that Gillard was going to sack Rudd for disloyalty, this attempts to pre-empt that and put him on the moral high ground and puts him in a better position for a leadership challenge, should that emerge next week.
Gillard is going to have to build on what she’s been doing for the past week, which is essentially shoring up her position in the caucus, in the cabinet, and reinforcing to her caucus colleagues that changing leaders would only add to the instability. She’s got a challenge on, so she’s going to have to come and meet it.
This makes it a bit more likely that he could get up. Ultimately it’s going to be the waverers in the caucus, particularly those on very thin margins, out in marginal seats, ultimately they’re going to be driven by who is much more likely to limit the damage from an election loss next year. Which leader is more likely to improve their electoral chances? Possibly, enough of them will decide that the polls have been so dire under Julia Gillard, that Kevin Rudd, even though he’s been so autocratic and, as his critics say, a psychopathic control freak, that he’s more likely to get them over the line. It’s still unlikely at this stage. But the number crunching will be going on feverishly as we speak. I don’t think he’ll get up at this stage.
If he challenges, the most likely outcome is that he’ll lose, bide his time, and challenge again later. We could be looking at a repeat, to some extent, of 1991, when Keating challenged Hawke, lost, went on the backbench, continued his lobbying and instability, weakening Hawke further and further, then coming in later in the year. So history could repeat itself. You never know in politics.