Leadership Turmoil at Endgame as Australia Lawmakers Meet

Australian lawmakers gathered for the last time before a September poll, with speculation Kevin Rudd will again vie for the job he lost to Prime Minister Julia Gillard three years ago today in a backroom party coup.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet was the latest senior figure in the ruling Labor Party to say leadership tensions need to be resolved by the end of the week, when parliament goes into recess in Canberra ahead of the Sept. 14 election.

“We cannot come out of this final week of parliament with this speculation continuing all the way to the election,” Combet told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio today. “Kevin Rudd has to decide whether he is a candidate or not. The prime minister is not going to step down, so the ball is in Kevin Rudd’s court.”

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 a return to Rudd, whose challenge of Gillard in February 2012 fell well short, might 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

Abbott widened his lead over Gillard as preferred prime minister to 12 percentage points, the largest margin between the two party leaders, according to a Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper today. The coalition led Labor 57 percent to 43 percent on a two-party basis, designed to gauge which party is most likely to form a government under Australia’s preferential voting system.

The survey of 1,140 people taken June 21-23 had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Newspoll is 50 percent owned by News Ltd. and 50 percent by Millward Brown Inc., a market-research company.

Gillard said today she “absolutely” had the support of the Labor caucus. “We settled all this in March,” she told reporters in Canberra, referring to the last time she opened her leadership to contest and ended up being unchallenged.

Gillard’s Vow

While Gillard has vowed she won’t resign and Rudd has said he won’t challenge, media speculation has intensified that some lawmakers are seeking to reinstall him, especially after he started making campaign appearances for colleagues in marginal seats. Should Gillard refuse to throw open her leadership, a contest could 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,” Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said on Sky Television yesterday. “I absolutely believe Julia Gillard’s got the majority of support in the caucus.”

Australians have had a “gutful” of the leadership talk, Rudd said June 21, adding he doesn’t “believe there are any circumstances” under which he would challenge. Gillard beat him in a February 2012 leadership ballot 71 votes to 31, prompting Rudd to say he wouldn’t challenge again.

‘Stopped Listening’

Elevating Rudd would boost Labor’s chances, 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. newspapers June 17. It showed support for Labor under Gillard slid 3 points to 29 percent, versus the opposition’s 47 percent.

“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.”

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 government because independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have said their agreement to help Labor form a minority government in September 2010 was exclusively with Gillard.

Should Gillard resign or be replaced 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.

Manager of Opposition Business Chris Pyne today indicated the coalition wouldn’t seek to dissolve the government should Rudd be made prime minister. “We want the people to choose who the next prime minister should be,” Pyne said in a Sky News interview today. “We want that to be done at an election.”

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