Kevin Rudd resigned as Labor leader after voters in Australia evicted the government, setting the stage for the party to install a new chief in an attempt to end three years of damaging infighting.
“It’s time for the party to further renew its leadership for the future,” Rudd told supporters in Brisbane late yesterday after conceding the election to Liberal-National coalition leader Tony Abbott. “For me, that time is now. The Australian people, I believe, deserve a fresh start with our leadership.”
Rudd, 55, didn’t specify if he would quit his Queensland district of Griffith. He leads 53 percent to 47 percent on a two party-preferred basis against Liberal National Party candidate Bill Glasson, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.
His resignation leaves Australia’s oldest political party leaderless and further drains its talent pool after nine former ministers didn’t stand for re-election. Already scarred by turmoil that saw Rudd ousted by Julia Gillard in 2010, only to reclaim the leadership in June, Labor must now unite behind a new leader to take on Abbott, 55, whose coalition returns to power for the first time since 2007.
“The result is a repudiation of Rudd as leader but it’s more than that, it’s a general rejection of the Labor brand,” said Paul Williams, a political analyst at Brisbane’s Griffith University. “The problems with the party mean it will have to get its house in order in opposition. It’s not like a lick of paint will fix them up.”
The coalition was leading in 88 seats to Labor’s 57, with vote counting continuing, according to the AEC.
Under rules introduced by Rudd in July, the party automatically holds a leadership ballot if it loses office. The new leader is chosen in a vote by its lawmakers and ordinary members, with both groups carrying equal weighting.
Deputy Leader Anthony Albanese, 50, outgoing Education Minister Bill Shorten, 46, and outgoing Treasurer Chris Bowen, 40, have been touted as future leaders of the party. Both Albanese and Shorten declined in television interviews today to rule themselves out as potential candidates.
“We have a number of talented people in the Labor party caucus,” Albanese told Channel Ten, naming Shorten and outgoing ministers Tony Burke, Chris Bowen and Tanya Plibersek. “What’s important is that the Labor party serve as a team, that it’s united, that we defend our legacy and that we take up the arguments to Tony Abbott and the coalition.”
Even so, questions remain over whether Rudd will resign his seat, which would trigger a special election for the district, or stay on in parliament. He also did not rule out recontesting the leadership in the future. After Rudd was ousted by Gillard, senior party figures accused him of seeking to destabilize her government.
“We cannot afford to have the sort of disunity that we’ve experienced over the last few years,” Greg Combet, who resigned from his climate change ministry after Gillard’s departure and didn’t re-contest his seat, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Along with infighting and a reputation damaged by corruption scandals, Labor has struggled to appeal to its traditional blue-collar base, resulting in a fall in membership and questions over its relevancy as fewer voters identify themselves as working class.
“It’s much easier to have internal reforms in opposition than while in government,” said Joff Lelliott, Queensland state director of the Australian Fabians, a Labor-linked think tank. “The challenge is to once again become a party for the masses.”
Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, entered parliament in 1998 and became Labor leader in 2006. He enjoyed record-high popularity ratings after defeating John Howard’s coalition government in 2007, boosted in part by his apology to the indigenous Aboriginal population for past abuses and signing the Kyoto Protocol.
His popularity sank as mining companies helped finance an advertising campaign against his plan for a 40 percent tax on resource profits, and he was ousted by senior Labor colleagues who were critical of an autocratic leadership style.
Rudd served as foreign minister in Gillard’s government, before quitting in February 2012 to challenge her leadership. As Cabinet members rallied around Gillard, they made public their animosity toward Rudd, with then-Treasurer Wayne Swan describing him as a man of “great weakness” who had demeaned his colleagues during his tenure as prime minister.
With Gillard’s poll ratings slumping and Labor facing an election wipeout, Rudd stood against her in a vote by party lawmakers on June 26 and was restored to the leadership.
Labor initially erased a 14 percentage-point opinion poll deficit to the coalition under Rudd. His popularity waned during the course of the five-week campaign and he was eclipsed as preferred prime minister by Abbott in the final week.
“I think the Labor party should face up to the fact that this is a devastating result,” former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, 83, said on Sky News yesterday. “We have suffered a very major defeat and we must learn the lessons from it,” he said. “I’m very grateful that Kevin Rudd made the decision he did. We didn’t want a situation where there was going to have to be a fight within the caucus about whether he was going to hang on.”
Rudd’s campaign came across as “slightly dysfunctional,” said Griffith University’s Williams. “He had trouble staying on message and allowed the coalition to set the agenda. It was a poor campaign but with voter discontent growing in the years preceding the election, he always seemed a long shot.”