‘Ambitions to lead Labor’ as Kevin Rudd quits as Foreign Minister

Kevin Rudd has announced he will stand down as Foreign Minister. AAP

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has announced he will step down from his post, sparking immediate speculation about his next move and whether he will challenge Julia Gillard as Prime Minister.

In a press conference convened at 1am in Washington DC during an official visit, Mr Rudd said he believed he had lost the confidence of Ms Gillard and had no option but to resign.

The move comes after weeks of leadership speculation, and amid the first week of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s re-election campaign.

Bella Counihan spoke with Monash University’s political expert, Nick Economou.

Rudd has said he has resigned because he did not have support of the Prime Minister. What do you think his motivation is for quitting?

Presumably there is a bit of an ulterior motive here. I imagine Mr Rudd still harbours ambitions to lead Labor and perhaps then regain the Prime Ministership. But there’s a more fundamental issue and that’s the tenure of his position during this time. While he’s been away, he has been attacked by the Prime Minister’s supporters, Simon Crean in particular, who has been saying, in political terms, some pretty bad things about Rudd which really made Rudd’s position as a minister untenable.

The heavyhanded approach of the Gillard backers forced Rudd to resign and in the process, Gillard’s backers have made a tactical error, as they always do. There’s something consistent about Julia Gillard and her people is that they just never get it right, and they’ve not got it right this time either.

Will Kevin Rudd challenge Julia Gillard? AAP

So this is in no way a positive for Gillard, Rudd stepping down? Will it help to move on from speculation about the leadership?

Oh no. This is an unmitigated disaster for Gillard, as if things weren’t bad enough. I mean it just brings the electorate’s attention back again to the events that led to Rudd’s dismissal as Prime Minister, and he’s made sure of that by reference to that in his speech.

The other thing too is that while Mr Rudd was a minister he was tied in by Westminster convention to the policy positions held by the Gillard government and it would have also had severe constraints on Mr Rudd’s ability to comment on policy areas outside his own portfolio.

Now that he’s no longer a minister he’s able to comment on anything, presumably if he wanted to he could criticise some of the more unpopular aspects of the Gillard government’s policy including things like its carbon tax. But the first thing of course, is that by coming out of the ministry, Mr Rudd will have to go to the backbench, which is of course is precisely what Mr Rudd wants to do.

At the moment his problem is not one of popular appeal, he’s very popular amongst the voters according to the opinion polls, what he lacks at the moment is support on the backbench - and guess what? That’s now exactly where he’s going to go thanks to the efforts of Mr Crean, Ms Gillard and others. It’s a tactical blunder by Gillard of quite severe proportions.

If Rudd moving to the backbench is a tactical move, is this similar to Paul Keating’s attempt at leadership from the backbench in the early 90s?

Yes, each one of these incidents have their own historical dimensions. But yes, you’re basically right. Again as I say, we know there’s a problem in the backbench. There wouldn’t have been this ramping up of the leadership crisis if there weren’t sufficient numbers of Labor backbenchers who are looking at the polls, looking at Gillard’s leadership and concluding that not only will the government be defeated, but they will lose their seat.

Now, it was clear that the message of how unpopular Gillard and her government is was getting through to these MPs when they were with their constituents over the summer. When they got back to Canberra, there was a sense of how Gillard and her team managed to bring the panic back under control and this feeling of the inexorability of the leadership change started to recede. And in that circumstance, there wasn’t really much option for Rudd to manoeuvre the way he was manoeuvring.

But I still maintain, that the kind of panic that was starting to appear at that stage could come up again at any time. The most dangerous period for Gillard is actually not now, it will be in August this year, after the carbon tax comes in and the opinion polls I’m sure will go into a nosedive. And by that stage Rudd will have had a number of months working with the backbenchers reminding them that he’s popular in the eyes of the electorate, reminding them that he’s no longer apart of a government that has these unpopular policies. And then he has a very good chance of toppling her as leader.

Labor wasn’t exactly on track to do well at an election, but how do you think their electoral chances are now? Does it damage the Labor brand even more?

Well, let’s just get things clear from the start. Labor is on track for a huge electoral defeat, a defeat probably of the dimensions similar to that suffered by Keating in 1996 and Whitlam suffered in 1975 and 1977 and it’s not turning around.

Far from, as she promised, from improving the situation and making 2012 the year that the government would be back on top, in fact all she’s done so far is making Labor’s situation worse. Which brings us to the second part of the question, what’s the voter response going to be to [the resignation]? It will be that they will continue to defect from Labor and tell pollsters that the coalition and Mr Abbott are on track to a landslide election victory.

Industry Minister Greg Combet earlier today was talking at the National Press Club saying this had to be resolved. Is this a resolution? Could it have gone any other way?

Gillard’s backers have miscalculated. They thought that Rudd was so vain that he would not surrender the foreign ministership and that they would then be able to sack him and have a show of strength by the Prime Minister.

Once caucus has reconvened next week, in fact Rudd has outflanked them because rather than be sacked and being seen as having done something wrong, being dismissed by the Prime Minister gives an impression to voters that the charges of disloyalty were true. In fact Rudd has now managed to beat his adversaries to the punch. He’s the one now holding the moral ground and he’s able now to go back to making references to the dynamics which saw him lose the Prime Ministership in the first place. So it’s just been an absolute unmitigated disaster.