It would appear absurd and self-defeating to remove a sitting Prime Minister less than 3 months before a general election and return a leader who had himself been removed from office only 3 years previously. After all divided parties do not win elections. The Rudd-Gillard soap opera may be a personal battle for supremacy of a dysfunctional Australian Labor party, but its roots lie in systematic and elite driven party politics. The simple answer as to why the Australian Labor party ousted Gillard last month and Rudd in 2010 is that they could and they had previous. Since 1945, there have been several challenges to sitting Prime Ministers in the party room and numerous examples of party leadership churn out of office in both main parties. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton was challenged shortly after winning the 1969 election and again in 1971 when famously a tied vote saw him casting the deciding vote against himself. Andrew Peacock failed to unseat Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1981. Under Labor, Bob Hawke managed to see off Paul Keating’s first party room challenge in 1991 but after a destabilising 6 month backbench campaign from Keating, lost the premiership. Rudd’s comeback is not so unusual. As Pat Weller observed the vanquished in Australian politics are reluctant to leave the stage. Challengers regroup and fight again as Keating did in 1991, but also leaders can hang around to fight to regain the crown as John Howard did successfully and Peacock unsuccessfully in the Liberal party.
The political culture of party leadership in Australia is ‘brutal’. The end for Gillard’s leadership of the party and country was swift, as had Rudd’s first effort been. A leadership ‘spill’ can be organised at short notice and defenestration is swift and ruthless. The oligarchic nature of party organisation ensures that party leaders need to satisfy, placate, manipulate or cajole their peers to survive in post. Research into leadership selection has shown that leadership selection and ejection, concentrated as it is within the Federal Parliamentary Party marks the ALP and Liberal party out. Furthermore the institutionalisation of the ALP’s factions is not only more entrenched than any other Australian party, but arguably any other social democratic party in the Western world. Australian party politics has managed to resist the trend towards expanding leadership selection beyond the parliamentary party to the membership. The short three year electoral cycle is cited as the most common reason for maintaining the status quo. Both main parties cannot afford to indulge in extended leadership selection and be ‘leaderless’. So power to select the party leader remains firmly in the hands of the parliamentary caucus with this concentration of elite power exacerbating the role of factions within the ALP. Former party leader Mark Latham called Labor a ‘virtual party controlled by a handful of machine men’.
As Rudd and Gillard found out, once leadership speculation gets going in Canberra a cocktail of party power brokers and political journalists can easily destabilise an incumbent Prime Minister. The devastating critique of Rudd by journalist David Marr in early June 2010 represented a tipping point in Rudd’s fortunes giving rise to the concerted internal party opposition. Gillard, with the opinion polls tanking for some time, suffered from Rudd’s constant sniping and a strain of virulent misogyny peddled from the Opposition and media. Running a minority government, fighting Rudd within the ALP and facing an aggressive centre-right bully in Liberal party leader Tony Abbott aswell as the constant media attacks meant she had little chance. Once the speculation is set in motion it becomes a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, as leadership consolidation is an elusive commodity in Australian politics and Federal MPs only see self-preservation. Unedifying and undemocratic it may be but the parliamentary caucus dynamic and machine politics create an Australian leadership setting in which hypocrisy, deceit and plotting are endemic.
Dr Mark Bennister is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of Prime Ministers in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia (Palgrave, 2012).