Leadership Turmoil at Endgame as Australia Lawmakers Meet

Speculation is increasing Kevin Rudd will again vie for the job he lost to Prime Minister Julia Gillard three years ago today in a backroom party coup as Australian lawmakers gather in Canberra this week.

Gillard will still be the prime minister at the end of the week, the final time parliament sits before the Sept. 14 election as the window for a challenge by Rudd closes, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said in a televised interview yesterday. Voters will “punish” the ruling Labor party if it continues to talk about the leadership and ignore policy debate, he said.

Pressure intensified on Gillard when Melbourne’s The Age newspaper wrote in a June 22 editorial that Australia’s first female leader should step down to enable policy-driven debate to flourish. Opinion polls indicate that a return to Rudd, whose previous challenge against Gillard in February 2012 fell well short, may avert a landslide win by the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National opposition.

“It’s near impossible to hold a leadership challenge unless the caucus is gathered in Canberra, so if anything is going to happen it has to happen this week,” said Stephen Stockwell, a political analyst at Brisbane’s Griffith University. “It’s uncertain whether Rudd yet has the numbers. Even those party members who dislike him may decide to be pragmatic and turn to him to help at least save some seats, rather than heading toward an election wipeout under Gillard.”

Leadership Speculation

While Gillard has vowed she won’t resign and Rudd has declared he won’t contend for the leadership, media speculation has intensified that Labor lawmakers are seeking a way to return the former prime minister to his job. Should Gillard refuse to throw open her leadership, a challenge could only be held if more than a third of Labor’s caucus demands a party room vote, known as a spill.

“I don’t believe that Julia Gillard will be overturned as the prime minister this week,” Conroy said on Sky Television yesterday. “I absolutely believe Julia Gillard’s got the majority of support in the caucus. I’ve thought that for the last three years and I continue to think that.”

Australians have had a “gutful” of the leadership talk, Rudd said June 21, ruling himself out of the running. Gillard beat him in a February 2012 leadership ballot 71 votes to 31, prompting Rudd to rule out a future challenge. In March this year, he declined to contest the leadership when Gillard called a vote. She was re-elected unopposed by her Labor colleagues.

Replacing Gillard with Rudd would boost Labor’s chances at the ballot box, polls show. His return would lift Labor by 11 percentage points in the primary vote to 40 percent, compared with the coalition’s 42 percent, according to a Nielsen survey published in Fairfax Media Ltd. (FXJ) newspapers June 17. It showed support for Labor under Gillard slid 3 points to 29 percent, versus the opposition’s 47 percent.

‘Stopped Listening’

“Voters have been so distracted by internal and external speculation about Labor’s leadership that efforts by the prime minister and her ministers to enunciate a narrative, a strategic vision, for the nation’s future beyond this year have failed,” said The Age newspaper, published by Fairfax. “A big majority of the electorate appears to have stopped listening.”

Speculation that Labor would return Rudd to the leadership to revive the party’s prospects for re-election resurfaced after he started making campaign appearances for colleagues in marginal seats this month.

The trade union movement is unanimous in its support of Labor and Gillard’s bid for re-election, the nation’s senior workers’ representative Paul Howes said last week. Gillard received another boost on June 21, when she received the backing of Labor power-broker Bill Shorten, who helped engineer her 2010 move on the leadership.

No Confidence

Installing a new leader while parliament still sits risks a collapse of the Labor government because independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have said their agreement to help the party form a minority government in September 2010 after the closest election in seven decades was exclusively with Gillard and would become void under another prime minister.

Should Gillard resign or be replaced as Labor’s leader on or after June 28, she would inform Governor General Quentin Bryce that the new leader would form government, allowing an election to be held as early as Aug. 3 or as late as Nov. 30, according to Australian National University international law specialist Don Rothwell.

“It would be rather extraordinary for the governor general not to accept that advice as the resignation of the prime minister would not have arisen from a motion of no confidence having been lost on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Rothwell said in an e-mail. “As such, the issue of whether the parliament has confidence in the government of the day would not have arisen.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Sharples in Melbourne at bsharples@bloomberg.net; Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stanley James at sjames8@bloomberg.net; Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

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