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First woman PM limps home

Gaye Johnston on faulty lessons from new Labor poms: how Australian Labor almost lost the 2010 general election.

When the author last wrote about the fortunes of the Australian Labor Government in Chartist, fifteen months ago, they were riding high. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd boasted months of public approval ratings at around 65% and the Labor government's Keynesian economic policies had steered Australia clear of the world recession. Aussie Labor seemed headed for a famous election victory in the summer of 2010. Added to this was the phenomenon whereby since 1936 every Australian federal government had been re-elected for two successive terms. How could they fail or come perilously close to it?

From commendable political motives Kevin Rudd next embarked on an ambitious programme of carbon trading in the lead up to the Copenhagen Environmental Conference. He was, initially, supported by the main opposition Liberal Party under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. Many Liberals were unhappy about the joint policy. A Liberal coup was organized. The enlightened Turnbull was replaced by right wing populist Tony Abbott; essentially a climate change denier. The Liberals then opposed the draft climate change legislation. Whilst Labor had a working majority in the Lower House of Parliament they had no majority in the Senate. Had the Liberals still supported carbon trading this would not have been crucial. Now Labor faced the scheme's defeat in the Senate.

The Senate is normally elected at a different time from the Lower House. A general election for the Lower House was due in late summer/early autumn this year. When the crisis about the Carbon scheme developed last Spring Rudd threatened a 'double dissolution'-- that is to call a general election for both Houses simultaneously-arguably a risky tactic. Rather than take that risk he decided to drop the Carbon trading scheme.

Meanwhile polls showed both the Carbon scheme and Rudd himself to be increasingly unpopular. This unpopularity was increased by the way in which one of the government schemes to create jobs and keep Australia out of recession was being run. This was a scheme to provide free roof insulation to people on modest incomes. It was implemented through using private contractors under minimal government supervision. Much of the work was not conducted safely and two young workers on the scheme were killed through electrocution causing a major public outcry which blamed the Government. At this stage the government took a disastrous decision to emulate New Labour's schools policy by setting up a 'My School' comparison website with minimal consultation. This alienated the majority of teachers mostly natural Labor supporters.

Finally a head of populist steam was building up against Australia's asylum policies. Australia takes relatively few asylum seekers but the recent increase in boats of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in addition to those from Afghanistan received maximum adverse publicity in the right wing media. Again Labor climbed down on its policies in response to polls as its British New Labour cousins would have done.

Much of the agitation against climate change and asylum policies was caused by Abbott and his colleagues. He is a self-publicist who hops on every bandwagon and gets enormous media coverage. This contrasted with the restrained Kevin Rudd. Rudd was seen by some as an aloof academic, an image reinforced by news coverage of him making speeches in fluent Mandarin in Bejing. During 2010 he spent a great deal of his time outside Australia dealing with international affairs. This adversely affected his poll popularity which dipped further.

Australian Labor MPs were painfully aware of what had recently befallen their British Labour colleagues. They perceived that by keeping Gordon Brown, despite his unpopularity, they had lost the 2010 general election. They reacted by learning the wrong lesson from New Labour's failure. A coup was hastily put together and capable Deputy Julia Gillard was persuaded to stand against Rudd who withdrew when it was clear he could not win.

Gillard, the leftish, Welsh born daughter of Labour Bevanites became Australia's first woman Premier. This prompted fierce onslaughts from both Abbot's Opposition and Rudd supporters. Gillard also took the faulty lesson from Gordon Brown's 2007 mistake by calling the general election before she was obliged to and establishing herself in the PM's role.

Australian voters reacted against back biting and what they perceived to be a split in the Labor Party. The election result was a draw; 72 seats all in the Lower House. Eventually Labor managed to form a three majority coalition through an alliance with one Green MP and two rural Independents who were promised fast broadband connections for their constituencies.

Aussie Labor almost lost through not having the courage of its convictions about its policies and leadership, appearing divided and by learning the wrong lessons from the example and disasters of UK New Labour.