Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard easily won an internal party vote Monday against the colleague she deposed two years ago,Kevin Rudd,and declared that she had put down the internal strife that has undermined her unpopular government for months.
Gillard defeated Rudd 71 votes to 31 in a ballot of Labor Party lawmakers,but she faces the challenge of reuniting her bitterly divided party and Cabinet. Rudd resigned as foreign minister shortly before she called the vote last week,and at least five other members of Gillard’s Cabinet backed her challenger.
Gillard described her win as “overwhelming” after months of “ugly” infighting within the ranks of the center-left party.
“Today I want to say to Australians one and all: This issue,the leadership question,is now determined,” she said. “I can assure you that this political drama is over.”
Gillard won one of the most crushing victories in a major party leadership ballot of recent years after one of the most vicious public campaigns between rival camps of the same party ever seen in modern Australian politics.
After his defeat,Rudd called on Labor to unite behind Gillard. He had warned during his brief leadership campaign that she would lead Labor to certain defeat at elections next year.
“I bear no one any malice and if I’ve done wrong to anyone with what I’ve said and what I’ve done,I apologize,” he told reporters.
Rudd said it was time the “wounds were healed” within the party.
Gillard called for the leadership ballot to confirm her authority after simmering leadership tensions that have destabilized the government for months. She would have had an additional vote,but one of her supporters had recently given birth and was absent for the ballot.
Rudd supporters had argued that Gillard is unelectable,while Gillard supporters said Rudd had shown himself to be an ineffective leader before Gillard deposed him in 2010 in an internal party coup.
Gillard’s Cabinet reshuffle,made necessary by Rudd’s resignation,is her first major step in healing the rift. She declined to comment on the fate of the Cabinet ministers who publicly supported Rudd.
“My focus will be on having a team based on merit and the ability to take the fight up on behalf of Labor to our conservative opponents,” Gillard told reporters after the ballot. “That’s how I will make my selection.”
Sen. Mark Arbib,a party powerbroker who supports Gillard and helped orchestrate the 2010 coup,quit as sports minister and as a senator later Monday in the interests of restoring government unity. An increasing number of lawmakers say the coup was a mistake and blame the continuing turmoil on Arbib.
“I’m resigning because I want to give the party a chance to heal. I want to be able to mend some of the conflict that has happened in the past,” he told reporters.
Opinion polls show Rudd to be significantly more popular than Gillard among voters,but many lawmakers were dissatisfied with his performance as prime minister,and there were concerns that Labor’s fragile ruling coalition could crumble,forcing early elections,if Rudd were to take over.
A narrow victory could have left Gillard exposed to a second challenge if Labor continued to trail the conservative opposition coalition in opinion polls.
Supporters of both candidates had expected Rudd to gain around a third of the votes. Rudd had vowed that if he lost the ballot,he would remain in politics at least until elections due next year,but he said he would not challenge her leadership again.
Resource Minister Martin Ferguson said while Rudd would not challenge again,another challenger could come forward if Labor’s fortunes do not improve.
Gillard was deputy prime minister two years ago when she made a snap challenge to Rudd’s leadership. When Rudd discovered how few lawmakers were prepared to support him at the time,he did not contest the ballot and Gillard became prime minister without a vote.
A respected opinion poll published on Monday showed most respondents thought Rudd would make a better prime minister than would opposition leader Tony Abbott. Rudd’s support stood at 53 percent,34 percent chose Abbott and 13 percent were undecided.
Respondents were more evenly balanced on a choice between Gillard and Abbott,with Abbott leading 38 per cent to 36.
The poll also found Labor trailed Abbott’s conservative coalition 47 percent to 53.
The poll was based on an Australia-wide random telephone survey at the weekend of 1,152 voters. It has a 3 percentage point margin of error.