Australian prime minister Julia Gillard survives damaging leadership battle

Labor leader is forced by senior members of government to throw job open to contest but is re-elected unopposed

The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, survived a damaging leadership battle on Thursday to retain the reins of a divided Labor party heading towards almost certain defeat in elections in September.

The drama began when one of the most senior members of her government called for Gillard to be replaced by Kevin Rudd, the man she controversially ousted from the job three years ago.

Less than an hour later, Gillard declared her leadership of the party, and in effect her job as prime minister, vacant – inviting rivals to nominate themselves for the role. But, when the ballot took place two and a half hours later, Rudd refused to put himself forward.

It is the second time Gillard's leadership has been challenged in just over a year. She defeated Rudd by 71 votes to 31 in a divisive party leadership ballot last year.

The challenge followed two opinion polls that suggested Labor would lose heavily in September if Gillard remained prime minister.

The party's share of the vote is down to 31%, compared with 47% for the conservative Liberal/National coalition opposition. This comes after a chaotic week in which Gillard's standing was further damaged when her government failed to force through a controversial media bill that would have introduced a statutory regulator for newspapers.

On Thursday morning Simon Crean, a former Labor party leader, called on both figures to "break the deadlock" in the "interest of the Labor party and the nation". He urged Gillard to call for a vote and for Rudd, whom he said he would back, to contest it.

Gillard responded by announcing a "spill" – declaring her position open. Few could have predicted what followed next.

Just minutes before the leadership contest, Rudd declared he would not stand, and Gillard was re-elected unanimously and unopposed, prompting questions about what the damaging party spat had been all about.

Rudd said the only circumstances in which he would consider a return to the leadership were "if there was an overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party requesting such a return – drafting me to return – and the position was vacant. I am here to inform you that those circumstances do not exist".

Analysts speculated that Rudd simply did not have the numbers to win Thursday's ballot.

Leadership speculation has come to symbolise the Labor party's woes in the first national hung parliament in 80 years. Throughout her term in office, Gillard has had to rely on the support of independents, and, until recently, the Green party, to stay in power. The conservative opposition has repeatedly cast her as untrustworthy because of the way she toppled Rudd.

But after Thursday's drama, Gillard declared the leadership question over.

"Today the leadership of our political party, the Labor party, has been settled, and settled in the most conclusive fashion possible. The whole business is completely at an end. It has ended now," she said.

The day of intense political theatre was a gift to the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, who was the target of Gillard's now famous sexism and misogyny speech last October.

"The civil war [in the Labor party] will continue as long as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are in parliament. The only way to give our country the good government that we so badly need right now is to have an election," he said.

On Thursday night, at least two Rudd backers had resigned their party posts to go to the backbenches.

Crean, a veteran of Labor politics, said he was surprised that Kevin Rudd did not stand but had no regrets about his role in the party's airing of its dirty linen.

He said Rudd "should have run", adding: "I think that itself would have been an important cleansing for the party."


Alison Rourke in Sydney

The GuardianTramp

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