Less than a year ago Kevin Rudd rode high as one of Australias most successful prime ministers. Suddenly,his spectacular career has come to a crashing end. With his rating in the opinion polls sliding disastrously,and a federal election due soon,a panicked ruling Labor Party on June 24th dumped Mr Rudd as leader. They replaced him with Julia Gillard,his deputy. She will give a country once branded as a bastion of male chauvinism its first female prime minister.
As his support crumbled among Labors 115 federal parliamentarians,Mr Rudd had declared defiantly the previous evening that he would fight a leadership challenge from Ms Gillard. But the coup turned out to be bloodless. Faced with a humiliating defeat,when the moment came Mr Rudd stood aside. His colleagues elected Ms Gillard unanimously. Wayne Swan,the treasurer,will take over as deputy prime minister.
Instead of making a scheduled visit to the G20 summit in Canada,where he was due to meet Barack Obama,Mr Rudd has now become the only prime minister Labor has ditched during a first-term government. The speed of his demise has astonished Australias political class. Labor had hailed him as a reformist hero after he led the party to power in late 2007,unseating the 11-year conservative coalition government under John Howard.
Mr Rudd started by ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change,then issued a long-awaited formal apology to Australias indigenous people for past injustices. His approval rating reached 71 per cent in April 2008; it was still at 63 per cent last October. Until recently the Liberals,the main opposition party,looked as if they would present no threat in this years election: since their defeat,they have swapped leaders three times.
All that changed in early May,when polls turned badly against Labor. In one month Mr Rudds approval rating fell by 11 points,to 39 per cent. Another poll earlier this month,showing the governments vote had fallen to 33 per cent,sent tremors through Labor powerbrokers. Votes leaked more to the Greens than to the Liberals; but the poll still gave the opposition a winning lead,even after the distribution of second-preference votes.
The trigger was Mr Rudds decision in late April to defer a planned emissions-trading scheme (ETS) until at least 2013. Legislation for it is stuck in the Senate,the upper house of parliament,where Labor lacks a majority. Mr Rudd had made attacking climate change a defining pledge of his platform. His apparent decision to abandon it dismayed voters and damaged his credibility on other issues.
One of these was a resources super-profits tax which Mr Rudd announced last month. From 2012,it would tax mining profits at a rate of 40 per cent after they reach a certain level. A noisy campaign against the tax by big mining companies drowned out Mr Rudds claim that it was only a fair way of returning a mining booms riches to Australians. Polls indicate public opinion is evenly split on the tax.
Fears about the governments crumbling fortunes unleashed unhappiness among Mr Rudds colleagues over his management style. A workaholic,he tended to control government as a one-man band,running the public service in Canberra ragged and shutting some colleagues out of key decisions. One environment minister learned of the ETSs deferral only by reading about it in the press. And Mr Rudds short temper had won him few friends to call on when the final crisis loomed.
Choked with emotion after seeing Ms Gillard take over,he took credit for invoking a swift response to the global financial crisis with a fiscal stimulus that helped Australia avoid a recession. But Australians no longer seemed to be listening to his boasts about this and other achievements.
The campaign starts here
At 48,and with a reputation as one of parliaments most combative debaters,Ms Gillard must now find ways to make them start listening again. Born in Wales,she emigrated with her parents as a small child. She entered parliament 12 years ago,after working as a lawyer. Her red hair,broad Australian accent and sharp mind have made her one of the most watched figures in Australian politics. From her base among Labors left faction in Melbourne,Ms Gillard has moved pragmatically to the centre. She oversaw the Rudd governments partial dismantling of the Howard governments workplace laws,which had vested power mainly with employers. But she has also managed to forge cordial relations with business.
Ms Gillard fronted her first press conference as prime minister by declaring that a good government was losing its way. She offered to re-prosecute the case for a price on carbon. And she proposed a deal to end the mining-tax row. She will cancel an expensive series of television ads the government had bought to sell its case (to no apparent avail),and ask the big mining companies to do the same. Both decisions will help give Ms Gillard something of a political honeymoon,and space to build support before the election she says will happen in coming months. Human-rights leaders,though,worry that she may be tempted to lurch to the right (as Mr Rudd promised not to) on another issue draining the governments support: the growing number of asylum-seekers
arriving in northern Australia by boat.
Tony Abbott,the latest opposition leader,rates poorly with women voters. Ms Gillard is popular across party lines. Still shocked,the government can only gamble that her fresh approach and capacity to charm will prove the weapon it needs to win a second term.