Gillard Rivals Face Window to Challenge Before Australia Budget

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s rivals face a narrowing window to challenge her leadership before Parliament rises for a seven-week break, as the Labor party struggles to boost support ahead of a September election.

Parliament is tomorrow scheduled to conclude its final session before the May 14 budget, making it tougher for any challengers to corral support for a party coup as lawmakers leave the capital. Media speculation has intensified this week that support is growing among Labor ranks to restore the leadership to Kevin Rudd, who was ousted by Gillard in 2010.

Gillard’s minority government has trailed in opinion polls for almost two years, with surveys this month showing she lags behind opposition leader Tony Abbott on the question of preferred prime minister. Labor MPs face the dilemma of putting in a new boss to woo back voters -- at the risk of deepening disaffection with a party that’s been through two leadership challenges in three years -- or sticking with the nation’s first female prime minister.

“Whatever happens, this constant speculation is not a good look for the Labor party,” said John Warhurst, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “If she’s certain she’s got good numbers, she might call a spill to head off any other challenges before the election. She will probably just sit pretty and dare the Rudd followers to bring it on.”

Rudd’s backers have raised the idea of a leadership move with Labor colleagues and could act this week, the Nine television network reported yesterday, without giving names.

Party Vote

The Australian Financial Review cited unnamed Gillard supporters saying that Rudd was a few votes short of a majority of lawmakers needed to oust her in a party-room vote. Some senior Labor figures are pushing Minister for Regional Australia and the Arts Simon Crean, who led the party for two years in the early 2000s, to offer himself as a candidate, the Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday.

“Any immediate challenge has to happen before they fly out of Canberra” at the close of parliament’s session, said Warhurst.

Support for Gillard has waned after a series of policy back flips -- including on a tax on carbon emissions -- and scandals involving senior party members. A weakening manufacturing sector in some key Labor seats on the fringes of major cities has also seen her support dissipate.

Alongside perceived policy missteps, Gillard has come under scrutiny as a female leader. In a September 2011 interview with Bloomberg News, she described the Australian culture as “blokey” and last year in parliament accused Abbott of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism.”

‘Feisty Woman’

During parliamentary question time yesterday, Abbott asked whether Gillard would view it as a reflection of a lack of confidence in her government if lawmakers fail to pass legislation on the media industry this week. Gillard responded by saying Labor will win the election.

“It will be a contest, counter intuitive to those believing in gender stereotypes, but a contest between a strong feisty woman and a policy weak man, and I’ll win it,” Gillard said.

Labor rose 3 percentage points to 48 percent on a two-party preferred basis, with Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition falling 3 points to 52 percent, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper on March 12. The poll also showed Labor would win the election if Rudd replaced Gillard as Labor leader.

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A separate poll published this week in Fairfax newspapers showed Rudd is twice as popular with voters as Gillard. Asked who of the two was the preferred Labor leader, 62 percent of respondents said Rudd and 31 percent chose Gillard, according to the Nielsen survey.

Among solely Labor voters, support for Rudd is 51 percent to Gillard’s 48 percent, that poll showed. That’s narrowed from the 13 point lead he held over Gillard when he unsuccessfully challenged her for the leadership in February last year.

Among reasons cited by Gillard and her supporters for Rudd’s ouster in June 2010 were his erratic decision-making, lack of communication and his desire to concentrate power away from his own ministers. Rudd said early last year that he’d learned the lessons from his time as prime minister and would try to delegate and consult more widely.

Gillard told Fairfax newspapers in an interview published this week that she wouldn’t yield to leadership speculation: “If I haven’t flinched yet, why would I flinch now?” she was cited as saying.

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