Julia Gillard: Canberra's soap opera | Editorial

In the past week, Australia's Labor party has made Britain's New Labour look like a gentlemen's club

He is an ambitious intellectual heavyweight who was rude to his staff, contemptuous of his colleagues and presided over a chaotic cabinet. He devoted his energies to a long-standing feud with a party rival, which he duly lost, but not before sinking his party's chances of winning the next election. Any of this sound familiar? In the past week, Australia's Labor party has made Britain's New Labour look like a gentlemen's club. Australian politics is no stranger to feuds, which have a life of their own. They thrive independently of national emergencies like world wars, or successful periods of office. Malcolm Fraser versus Andrew Peacock, Bob Hawke versus Paul Keating – the place is littered with bodies of the ignobly slain.

Kevin Rudd's failed bid to unseat Julia Gillard this week as party leader and prime minister, 20 months after she unseated him in an internal coup, is more of the same. Ms Gillard ended up trouncing Mr Rudd who was unable to secure a third of the Labor caucus, but the blood-letting of the past week has been substantial. One minister after another lined up to attack Mr Rudd, who not only remains more popular than Ms Gillard, but who was also a talented foreign minister. There were ministers like the treasurer Wayne Swan, who praised Mr Rudd when he worked in his cabinet ("a fantastic work ethic") then damned him ("his behaviour became increasingly erratic") when told to by his new boss. They did not just demean Mr Rudd, but also themselves.

The two Labor leaders' protestations that their feud is over (Ms Gillard said it was time to honour Mr Rudd's achievements while he said he would now work unstintingly from the backbenches for her re-election) will fool no one. Long before the party closed ranks, the damage has been done. Ms Gillard faces an uphill task reviving her party's ratings before next year's election. She deserves to keep the job because this is her second victory over Mr Rudd and her margin of victory is the largest obtained by a sitting prime minister. She won the last election and formed a coalition, negotiating Labor into a minority government. She also retains the basis for a recovery. A poll published yesterday said that Labor's primary vote climbed three points to 35%. If Ms Gillard has found the purpose she needs to fight the populist rightwing opposition leader Tony Abbott, dubbed the Dr No of Australian politics, then some good may have come of all this.

As well as being unsavoury, this is an expensive way to do political business. Mr Rudd is a loss to the national scene, however difficult he was to work with. It is also a reminder that political culture does not depend on more equitable systems of voting. Australia has compulsory voting, preferential voting in the form of AV, and a proportionately elected Senate. None of it guarantees better politicians.


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