Aussie rivals: Voters like Rudd, insiders Gillard

February 25, 2012 - 8:15 AM
Australia Politics

Former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd gestures during a press conference, in Brisbane, Australia, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. Rudd announced Friday that he will attempt to grab back leadership of the country, directly challenging the current prime minister amid a bitter power struggle that has been brewing for weeks. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Kevin Rudd has screen presence and a common touch, but he aggravated Australian officials as prime minister with chaotic leadership and a bad temper. His successor, Julia Gillard, gets higher marks among many insiders, but to much of the public she seems cold or insincere.

The rivals, once political partners, will face off Monday in a vote of Labor Party lawmakers called by Gillard in hopes of extinguishing Rudd's desire to recapture the top job. Labor lawmakers turned on Rudd two years ago to install Gillard, but he is banking on his popularity with the public and the fact that polls suggest the party will suffer landslide losses in elections next year with Gillard at the helm.

Sydney University political scientist Peter Chen said Rudd cannot win over his party, but Gillard cannot win over the public.

"The great irony is she's very effective and Rudd and her could have made an incredible partnership really, but because Rudd is such an egocentric individual, that has not played out, and Labor will lose the next election regardless of who becomes prime minister after Monday," Chen said.

Rudd resigned as Gillard's foreign minister on Wednesday, prompting Gillard to call the leadership ballot. He urged voters to lobby their representatives and the media to demand his reinstatement as prime minister.

"This is ultimately a question of people power," he told reporters on Friday when he announced he would contest the leadership.

"What I'm saying directly to the Australian people is: If you have a strong view on the future prime ministership of the country, then your power as the people is what will count in the days ahead."

Gillard said Rudd is an excellent campaigner who has proven himself to be incapable of governing effectively.

"The ultimate measure of a government ... isn't opinion polls in newspapers," she said Saturday. "The ultimate measure of a government is whether it led this nation to a stronger and fairer future."

But undecided lawmakers may be swayed by three reputable opinion polls published in newspapers on Saturday showing that Australians prefer Rudd as prime minister over Gillard.

Labor chose Rudd as its leader and Gillard as his deputy when it was in the opposition in 2006. At the time, the pair appealed to a wide cross-section of conservatives and progressives, and when Rudd led Labor into office the next year, he was a party hero.

His popularity remained high for the next two years, but it slumped after a series of policy changes. Gillard challenged him to a leadership ballot in June 2010, and when Rudd discovered how little support he had left within his own party in Parliament, he decided against opposing her.

Many voters, however, were angry that the party had deposed a prime minister before they had a chance to pass judgment on election day. Gillard scraped through 2010 elections to lead Australia's first minority government since World War II, and recent opinion polls show her well behind Rudd.

From the comfort of their lounge chairs, Australians tend to like what they see on the TV screens with Rudd. The 54-year-old is quick to smile with a nerdy sense of humor, an eye-glazing penchant for public service jargon and a sharp sense of social justice born of a tough childhood raised by a widowed mother. His command of Mandarin also seemed to be a bonus for a modern Australian leader in what has been dubbed the Asian century.

Those with closer contact are aware of an explosive temper. They complain of a monumental ego, punishing hours demanded of underlings, and an inability to delegate or consult with colleagues.

An influential national newspaper labeled him "Captain Chaos" within seven months of him gaining office, and reported that senior public servants waited in corridors for hours for meetings. Staff turnover was high. Ministers waited until he went overseas to get routine signatures from Gillard, who was acting prime minister in his absence.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon recalled that when she was Rudd's health minister, he told her he wanted to take over the national health system from the states. Roxon said there were no Cabinet documents prepared or legal advice on the implications, but that he wanted Cabinet approval before making the announcement — in four days.

The takeover never took place.

"This is just a ludicrous way to run a government," Roxon told Sky News television, adding that she would never again work as a minister under Rudd.

"The truth is that Prime Minister Rudd is deeply flawed," said Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, a key Gillard supporter who was once a friend of Rudd and attended high school with him.

"Yes, he does have some very significant achievements, but on the flip side, he has great weaknesses, great weaknesses which to date have not necessarily been seen in public," Swan said.

Political scientist Nick Economou of Monash University said Rudd has outmaneuvered Gillard in the power struggle so far but has a long way to go to get the support he needs from his 103 wary government colleagues.

"The guy is a consummate operator. It's a pity he's such a nightmare to work with because he'd be devastatingly brilliant otherwise," Economou said.

Gillard, 50, is viewed by many in her government as a cool-headed leader with a record of getting things done.

To highlight their differences, she has cited two proposals she helped push through Parliament after Rudd failed: a trading scheme aimed at reducing carbon emissions, and a 30 percent tax on the profits of iron ore and coal miners. She succeeded even though since the 2010 elections, Labor has a more tenuous grip on power than it did under Rudd.

The carbon trading scheme, however, came at a political price. To gain needed support from the minor Greens party, Gillard had to renege on a campaign promise not to introduce a carbon tax. The tax will apply for three years before an emissions trading scheme is introduced in 2015, when the cost of producing a ton of carbon will be determined by free market forces.

The carbon deal has fed some of the most virulent public reaction against Gillard. Rowdy demonstrators have carried signs demanding "Ditch the Witch" and dubbing her "Ju-liar."

Opposition to Gillard, however, touches not just on her decisions but on her personality.

The media accused her of appearing robotic and rehearsed when she visited emotion-filled disaster areas last year in eastern Australia, where record floods and storms killed 35 people and destroyed more than 35,000 homes.

Some commentators also say she suffers from sexist and conservative opposition as Australia's first woman prime minister, the first prime minister to take an affirmation of office instead of swearing on a Bible and the first to share the official residence with a common-law partner.

Katherine Wilson said she thinks Gillard and Rudd are "pretty much the same" on policy issues, but still she was outside Parliament House on Friday, staging a one-person demonstration with a banner that read, "Come on Ruddy, lead your party."

"I think it comes down to the way he handles the media and presents himself — the warmth he has," Wilson said. She said Gillard is "terribly cold. I often see her holding babies and she can't even do that right."