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Pride goes before three falls

Gaye Johnston explains how the Australian Labor Party came to lose the 2013 Federal election

It is claimed that Shakespeare's tragic heroes each have a fatal personality flaw. This can be claimed to be true of both the Leaders of the Australian Labor Party (both Prime Ministers) between the federal elections of 2007 and 2013. However, the nature of their flaws differed. These respective negative traits contributed to the downfall of each.

Kevin Rudd had an attractive public persona and was liked by the electorate but was an unpopular leader of colleagues. Highly intelligent, articulate he was a good listener in media appearances. When his Queensland Constituency suffered severe flooding he turned out to help people salvage furniture from their homes as was shown on National TV. Prior to entering politics Rudd had been a successful senior diplomat serving in China. International relations was one of his strengths but he was often criticised, as Blair was, for spending too much time on the world stage and too little in Australia.

Julia Gillard had personal and managerial skills which made her popular with Parliamentary, senior Party and trade union colleagues but a hectoring and dogmatic public manner disliked by many electors. In this respect she was sometimes reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher. Gillard was a hard worker and extremely resilient to the severest criticism. Australians are also noted for overt sexism (or ‘Sheilaphobia'). This is probably little worse than British sexism, but Aussies can be less inhibited about publicly admitting sexist views. Demonstrations against Gillard's policies were accompanied by numerous extreme sexist posters carrying slogans such as ‘ditch the bitch'. However Opposition Leader Tony Abbot was willing to make speeches criticising Gillard with posters bearing such insults as a backdrop on the platform.

Whilst all senior politicians are subjected to cartoonists exaggerating their physical features, Gillard was invariably portrayed with a grossly exaggerated enormous posterior. This was extremely sexist when recalling that Thatcher, Barbara Castle and Harriet Harman were never caricatured in this way in Britain. Born and lived in Wales until she was four, Gillard spoke with an exaggerated Australian accent which the media caricatured. Another manifestation of sexism was that Gillard was often publicly asked why she had never married and had children. Current partner Tim had once been her hairdresser and this was mocked by Abbot who actually implied that he was gay.

There were two other, recently emerged, causes of Gillard's unpopularity. One stemmed from her work as a lawyer before entering Parliament. It became public that she had then advised a trade union how to set up a prohibited fund whose covert purpose was allegedly to finance the re-election of several officials. In the last two years she employed former Blair advisor John McTernan to advise her too. This was unpopular with Aussies because he was given a type of visa which was reserved for essential foreign workers who could not otherwise be recruited. The media and public contended she should have recruited an Australian.

The third factor in this tragedy was the ALP's procedures for dismissing and selecting its leader. Unlike the better UK electoral college system, Australian Labor leadership is determined behind closed doors by the Parliamentary Party (Senate and Lower House known as Caucus). They act alone after some consultation with union leaders. Leadership changes are presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the party. There is no requirement to give any explanation to the party or public outside Parliament. In the case of the dismissal of Rudd and adoption then sacking of Gillard none was offered. Being offered no explanation does not lead to party or public acceptance of a decision made in secret and without democratic participation.

After he won the 2007 election Rudd enjoyed personal popularity for the first two years. He gained plaudits for apologizing to the stolen generations of Australians (Aboriginal and others) who had been forcibly taken from their birth mothers and adopted elsewhere. But his great triumph was an economic policy which enabled Australia to avoid the world financial crisis. He adopted a Keynsian growth policy where money was heavily invested in capital projects notably a new building for every school and insulation for homes. He inaugurated a scheme of financial assistance for first time home buyers and a grant of $400 dollars to everyone on average or below average incomes with a plea to spend it to save jobs in Australia. He was also assisted by the mining boom.

The first leadership challenge in the Caucus, won by Gillard, came in July 2010. It followed Rudd's and Labour's decline in popularity in the polls following the floating of his proposals for a carbon tax and a tax on mining corporations. A federal election was then due: members of Caucus took fright. Gillard won the ballot and became leader without consent of the whole Labor Party or the public. Rudd became Foreign Secretary. A federal election was called for less than two months later. It was alleged that Rudd undermined Gillard's reputation during the election campaign. Labor became the largest party but was short of an overall majority in the Lower House. Labor formed a rainbow coalition which included the Green MPs and four assorted independents. This led to on-going haggling over environmental and rural policies and laws to restrict machine gambling (opposed by Labor as it was a major source of income for Labor clubs). There were constant fears that one or more independents would defect. Meanwhile Australia became more prosperous because of flourishing mining industries selling most of their outputs to China. The $A became one of the strongest currencies in the world. However, the manufacturing industry in the Labor heartlands of the south and east of Australia was in decline.

In 2012 the Labor government decided that they should develop another measure to address global warming and introduced a carbon tax which was little different from that proposed by Rudd two years earlier. It included measures to reduce its impact on people with low incomes. This tax came into effect in June 2013. Meanwhile in Autumn 2012 Kevin Rudd made another bid to regain the Leadership. Rudd lost and resigned as Foreign Secretary and went to the back benches declaring that he would never stand again for the leadership.

After this the popularity of the Labor government, together with that of Gillard, declined steadily. In Australia, as in the UK (prior to the current Coalition) the usual practice was for the PM to call a federal election four to six weeks ahead of polling day. However in January 2013 Julia Gillard called the election by naming a date in mid-August. She seemed to believe that the Opposition would run out of steam during the intervening period. Gillard was much criticised for this in Labor circles on the grounds that it gave the Opposition a golden opportunity to start campaigning and to wrong foot the Government. Her popularity continued to decline and was stuck at 28% approval rating. In March 2013 Rudd challenged and then decided at the 11th hour not to stand. There was further deterioration in the popularity of Gillard and the Government but polls continued to show favour for Rudd as PM. In June this year another spill was organised. This time Rudd defeated Gillard and became Prime Minister. His popularity continued to improve. It was in Rudd's power to delay the election date. However Rudd chose to run the election on August 14th, shortly before the date originally chosen by Gillard. Up to polling day he was 3% behind Liberal rival Abbott in the polls and Labor lost. Had the election been delayed a little Labor might have won.