By the time Julia Gillard was addressing staff from the stairs of the Lodge, her official residence for the past three years, she was no longer wearing the black skirt suit she’d had on in caucus, and she was no longer prime minister. She was a mere backbencher and was wearing jeans. Wayne Swan, the treasury minister who later resigned rather than serve Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister and Gillard’s bitter rival, was there as well.
They spoke without bitterness. There were no tears. Apologies were made to staff, many of whom would lose their jobs. Festivities continued until only light beer was left – and then it was drunk, too.
To understand the events of 26 June – the replacing by caucus ballot of Australia’s 27th prime minister with its 26th – is to understand the desperation of the Australian Labor Party. Rudd stands atop the ruins of a government he played no small part in wrecking. Ever since he was removed from the leadership in 2010, accused of dysfunction and a vicious temper, he has campaigned relentlessly against the woman who replaced him.
Ministers have resigned rather than work with him. A former Labor leader has called for him to be expelled from the party. He is described on his own side as a “psychopath” – and yet his party decided he is the people’s psychopath. He has been elected to run an election campaign: that being his great talent.
Gender had a part to play in the demise of Gillard. This is the woman who has been described as “deliberately barren”. Her empty fruit bowl was worried over by the nation. Her “small breasts, huge thighs” and “big red box” were mocked in a “Julia Gillard quail” on the menu at a recent Liberal Party fundraiser.
Gillard’s chief disadvantage against Rudd was that she could never escape the party; she came to it through university politics, built a career in a Laboraffiliated law firm, owed too great a debt to the union movement. Labor is built on union support, in a country where four in five people are no longer union members. Yet while union influence has waned in the workplace, it has grown inside Labor.
And so you have Rudd: the party’s answer to hatred of the party. The phrase “old politics” has become his slogan – a commitment to run for the public against a parliament it loathes. By 30 June, polls had Labor in contention to win an election it has looked like losing for three years.
Rudd’s ambition for the leadership was there from the time he joined Labor’s opposition benches in 1998. Colleagues mocked him as “delusional”. The former Labor leader Mark Latham writes about this time in his truculent memoir, The Latham Diaries: “Rudd is a terrible piece of work: addicted to the media and leaking. A junior minister in government, at best.”
But instead he is prime minister. Again.