On a trip to Australia, I discover that a day is a very long time in politics Down Under

Douglas Alexander's Notebook.

Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Getty Images

I arrive Down Under as a guest of the Australian government, but my breakfast appointment on the first morning happens to be with none other than Alastair Campbell. He’s in Sydney simultaneously to support the British and Irish Lions and to talk about his diaries.

At a table overlooking the Sydney Opera House, we discuss the picture on the front page of every newspaper – showing Prime Minister Julia Gillard knitting a woollen kangaroo for the royal baby. John McTernan, also previously of Downing Street, now her communications director, is quoted in the coverage as saying the idea “was a no-brainer”.

Cool prime time

The previous day Alastair had been ushered in to see the prime minister in Canberra by John and he echoes the judgement of others, saying she seemed very calm under fire. Given the papers’ comments about her royal roo pose, it’s a quality she’ll need today. My next meeting is with a former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating. Now retired, he remains fascinating and stimulating company.

The sound of power

No sooner have we discussed the role of Kondratieff waves in advanced capitalist economies than Keating is explaining – as a lover of antique clocks – that he used to read the Christie’s catalogue during cabinet meetings. When I ask him what he believes the prime political virtues are, he replies without hesitation: “Imagination and courage.” He then explains that he drew his inspiration and got his best ideas in government by listening to music – “the highest form of art” – and to Shostakovich in particular.

Next it’s down to Canberra, amid growing speculation of a challenge that afternoon by Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard’s leadership. Parliament is in its last week before a long break, so it’s his last chance to challenge her ahead of the election scheduled for September. The Gillard/Rudd rivalry over recent years makes the periodic outbreak of the TB/GBs during our 13 years in office look like a picnic.

Events, dear boys, events

Until a few weeks ago the idea of a comeback for Rudd, the former prime minister deposed by Gillard three years ago, seemed remote. Yet with poor polls suggesting a wipeout in the election just months away, the speculation is at fever pitch as I arrive at Parliament House.

In the course of the morning I meet Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, Climate Minister Greg Combet and Education and Employment Minister Bill Shorten. Within 24 hours two of these ministers will have announced not only that they’re quitting government but that they’re leaving parliament, too.

Rudd’s supporters make their move that afternoon as word spreads that a petition is being circulated among Labor MPs demanding a leadership vote, or “spill”, as I soon discover it’s called. Making a fateful decision, Gillard responds by announcing a vote that very afternoon, on condition that whoever loses gives up politics altogether.

With half an hour to go, Shorten appears before the cameras to announce that he’s switching his support from Gillard to Rudd. At the subsequent caucus meeting Rudd defeats Gillard by 57 votes to 45.

Labor’s difficulties seem more electoral than economic, and are more to do with personnel than policy: the Australian economy is growing for the 22nd consecutive year, and despite a legislative record that includes major educational reform and the introduction of a landmark disability insurance scheme.

Sheila, take a bow

Gillard’s concession speech was a model of graciousness. After congratulating her rival on his victory she spoke of the “honour” of serving as the country’s first female PM. In part because of her “misogyny speech” that became a huge YouTube hit even in the UK, there was much discussion of how being a woman had affected the way she was treated in the media. Here, too, Gillard had the last – and best – word when she said this about her gender: “It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things . . . What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I’m proud of that.”

Oz reorientation

One woman who doesn’t seem too bothered by Labor’s leadership change is Julie Bishop, the Liberal opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson. The next day when I meet her it’s very clear that this suburban Perth MP is still preparing for government. She is well briefed on the issues, and our conversation reinforces how deep and enduring are the ties between the UK and Australia. Yet it is also clear that Australians are already embracing the opportunities of what their government’s recent white paper called “the Asian Century”. Perhaps that explains why in none of my meetings did anyone suggest the UK leaving the EU would be a good thing for Australia. Indeed, in discussion after discussion, the possibility was greeted with a mixture of incredulity and anxiety.

Rugger relief

With 30,000 travelling Lions fans in the country it should be a busy time for Britain’s man in Canberra, High Commissioner Paul Madden, but he tells me with relief and pride that, so far, there has not been a single arrest.

Alas for me, the only meeting that didn’t happen was the one scheduled with a backbench Labor MP at 3.30pm on Thursday afternoon. At least he had a good excuse. That day, the now erstwhile backbencher (Kevin Rudd) instead met Governor General Quentin Bryce to be sworn in as the 28th prime minister of Australia.

As I left Australia the polls were already tightening. Yet Rudd still faces a huge task to defeat the Liberal opposition leader, Tony Abbott. Then again, as I learned from my time in Canberra, a day – never mind a week or a few months – is a very long time indeed in Australian politics.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary