The leadership war is over – where to from here for the ALP?

The problem for Gillard has always been the ‘Rudd-factor’, and arguably her prime ministership never got off the ground. AAP/Alan Porritt

Australia’s 43rd federal parliament has proven that politics is anything but boring.

Capping off a day when the two independent kingmakers, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, announced that they would not contest the upcoming election, Kevin Rudd won a party room ballot for the Labor leadership and has been sworn in again as prime minister.

The battle between Rudd and Julia Gillard has been raging ever since Gillard toppled Rudd in 2010. Following his removal from the prime minister’s office, Rudd became foreign minister but challenged Gillard in early 2012.

Although he lost that contest, in March 2013 his supporters again pushed for him to have yet another go at toppling Gillard. In one of the more bizarre episodes in Australian politics, Rudd refused to run.

But now that Rudd has returned, what now for the ALP? Can Rudd, the “comeback kid”, defy the previously poor opinion polls and pull off a stunning election victory later this year?

The Rudd factor

The big problem for Gillard and the Australian Labor Party has always been the Rudd factor. Rudd’s regular media appearances, coupled with images of him being swarmed by voters while travelling around the country, served to remind people of his charms and built a perception that he was still a popular figure.

As though to fuel flames of division within Labor, opinion polls consistently also showed Rudd to be a more popular leader than Gillard.

The role of opinion polls

Opinion polls played a central role throughout Julia Gillard’s prime ministership. Since 2011, they have shown that it would be almost impossible for Labor to win the next election.

While it is common for governments to face poor opinion poll results, Gillard never had clear air to try and articulate her government’s policies. Everything the prime minister did was overshadowed by Rudd’s presence.

This always made Gillard’s position very difficult. It is often the case that any leader needs to keep an eye on potential challengers from within their party, but Gillard’s troubles were compounded by the fact that she also had to work to maintain the support of the cross-benchers to retain government.

Like any leader, Gillard also made a number of tactical choices that could have worked in her favour but didn’t. The decision to present herself as “the real Julia” raised questions about her authenticity early in her term in office.

The decision to introduce carbon pricing at the start of her prime ministership arguably made her an easy target for the opposition who worked hard to brand her as an untrustworthy leader. The decision to recruit Peter Slipper caused more problems that it was worth.

Gillard’s legacy

Despite her turbulent prime ministership, Gillard’s legacy is safe. As Australia’s first female prime minister, she was able to implement big picture policies like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, pricing carbon and introducing reforms to health and education. These were precisely the issues Rudd struggled to resolve while he was prime minister from 2007 to 2010.

Gillard also appeared to have re-introduced notions of cabinet government. Unlike Rudd, who was roundly criticised by his colleagues for not listening to them and making snap decisions on his own, Gillard sought to work with her ministers to avoid her predecessor’s errors.

Personality not policy?

An interesting feature of the Rudd-Gillard battle has been the focus on the personalities rather than policies of the two figures. There are, however, some important policy differences that Rudd may try to act on during his second prime ministership.

Rudd’s commitment to the emissions trading scheme was part of his undoing in 2010. It remains to be seen whether he will alter the government’s carbon pricing scheme.

Rudd has also altered his position on same-sex marriage. Stating that he had changed his view on the issue following a “personal journey”, Rudd, unlike Gillard, believes that same-sex couples should be allowed to wed as long as religious institutions did not have to marry them. The question is now whether he will pursue this policy change in parliament.

As prime minister in 2008, Rudd ended the Howard government’s so called Pacific Solution asylum seeker policy which made Labor appear “soft” on the issue.

Labor’s asylum seeker policy has also been blamed by some Labor MPs for contributing to poor opinion polls. This very complicated area of policy will once again prove to be a challenge for Rudd. How he approaches this may be the key in turning the party’s electoral fortunes in some seats.

A different leadership style?

Rudd will also try to position himself as a very different leader to Gillard. He can differentiate himself by forging a more combative relationship between Labor and the Greens. This would weaken claims that the government was unduly influenced by the minor party. Similarly, Rudd could also seek to distance himself from the independents.

In announcing his intention to stand in the leadership ballot, Rudd positioned himself as a safe pair of hands by arguing that a “strong, proven, national leader” was needed to combat Tony Abbott. He also claimed that it was the pleas of people that motivated his run for the top job again.

The problems for Labor

Labor now finds itself in a very difficult position. After having so openly criticised Rudd’s leadership qualities, the Labor caucus now finds itself hoping the man they threw out three years ago still has the popularity and ability to galvanise support within the electorate and save their jobs.

This may be a masterstroke by Labor. After all, Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden on the day the election was called in 1983 and served as prime minister until 1991. On the other hand, this may yet signal to voters that Labor is disorganised and divided. Similar tactics of changing the leader was used by Labor in state elections in NSW and Queensland which led to very poor results.

In any case, Rudd and Labor have only a limited amount of time to try to gain the support and confidence of voters. The next short period in Australian politics will give an indication of whether this commotion was worthwhile.