Rudd, Gillard and then what?
It was not easy for the Australian cricket selectors to choose the team which could wrest the 'Ashes' from England this summer. It was not so in the...
It was not easy for the Australian cricket selectors to choose the team which could wrest the 'Ashes' from England this summer. It was not so in the recent past. Talent was in abundance and on most occasions the team and the captain selected themselves. Border, Taylor, Steve Waugh and Rickey Ponting were outstanding cricketers and had an easy time as captains because they had outstanding teams under them . Since Ponting's retirement, things have got tough for Australia.
Seven outstanding cricketers retired almost at the same time; their replacements found the going tough. Michael Clarke was the natural choice as captain. As a batsman he was outstanding but he had not distinguished himself as captain. He was also troubled by a bad back which could affect his career in the days to come. During and after their recent tour of India, the Australian team faced upheavals, particularly with Clarke unable to play most of the time. If he broke down during the ongoing English tour, Australian cricket would suffer grievously. Don't forget, England are the number one Test team at present.
The picture is different on the political front. Australia had its share of political and economic problems but we thought it had political stability. Kevin Rudd of the Labour party in 2007 was elected with a comfortable majority defeating the unpopular and racist John Howard. We rejoiced in his victory. Rudd visited India, created a good impression and it was hoped Australia would enjoy political stability and good relations with India.
But then politics is the same all over the world. The Labour party suffered internal rumblings and in a sudden leadership struggle, Rudd was ousted by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard after being accused of intolerance and wrong economic policies. The 'coup' was quick, peaceful and efficient. In the elections held subsequently, the Labour failed to get an absolute majority but was able to form a minority government under Gillard with the help of some minority political groups. That was in August 2010.
Gillard appointed Rudd as the Foreign Minister but her popularity struck a new low early 2011 when she announced plans for a pollution tax. Running the government became more difficult and Gillard had to go for a vote of confidence after Rudd resigned in February 2012. She won a comfortable majority and promised to unite the party for the 2013 general election. Rudd kept on promising he would not contest the leadership post again but on June 26, Gillard lost out to Rudd 57-45 in yet another party poll.
Australia did not suffer any kind of political crisis because the general election, anyway, is due in September. The Rudd takeover was smooth and, as per a pre-arranged plan, Gillard would not be contesting in any future election. Claiming he had chosen the best available talent, Rudd appointed a record number of women ministers and a first-ever Muslim Minister. While this would appease the liberals, there was heckling from right-wing benches when the Muslim minister was sworn in.
It was significant that only days earlier, Australia had provided full citizenship to a Muslim cricketer from Pakistan who had received political asylum some two years back. He is now eligible for the forthcoming Ashes series in England and may fill the vacuum for a long-needed class spinner. Thus ended the fourth leadership struggle in the Labour party in five years and it sharply reduced the party's chances of continuing in power. The showdown came about because party bigwigs doubted Gillard's leadership qualities and national popularity. Though Kevin Rudd remained quiet during the crisis, his supporters were a noisy lot and he could not ignore their aggressive stand on the leadership issue.
It is sad that the ouster of the Liberal party, its racial bias, antagonism to the Aborigines and toeing of the American line on international issues did not bring in the much-hoped-for reforms. Of course, Rudd criticized John Howard's support to American involvement in the Iraq war and the despatch of Australian troops to the front. After a heated national debate, he did apologize (as the Prime Minister) for the atrocities committed on the Aborigines by successive White governments. But both Rudd and Gillard were poor in political management and very soon powerful Labour party members turned against them. The changes in the government seldom resulted in political unity. In mature democracies, the succession processes are carried out with more finesse and politicians see to it that such change does not affect the running of an effective government.
This did not happen in Australia; there was too much focus on the Prime Minister. Why should groups of ministers forget their national responsibilities and insist they would serve only Prime Minister X and not Prime Minister Y? As soon as Gillard resigned six members of her Cabinet also quit on the grounds they would not be able to work with Kevin Rudd. This was unfortunate because they belonged to the same party and shared the same liberal views. There was no element of coalition culture and need for adjustments. When ministers owe allegiance to certain leaders and refuse to work with others, it does not work well for a democracy.
Australia paid a high price for the personality-oriented power struggle which began in 2007. There was some sympathy for Gillard because she was a victim of blatant sexism. Many of these 'gender wars' were cheap and smacked of right-wing prejudice. But this is not a major issue. Both Rudd and Gillard refused to carry their parties with them. Rudd said in public his party would support gay marriages despite opposition from the Julia group. But public opinion polls showed sharp decline for the Labour and Rudd may not have enough time to turn the trend.
However, the Labour's policies on issues like health, education and welfare are clearer cut. Unemployment is not a major issue. Further, Leader of the Opposition Abbot has the reputation of being a 'wooly-headed thinker' and is seldom articulate in his pronouncements. In the difficult days ahead, Kevin Rudd should make use of these leads.