Gillard pays heavy price

Last updated 23:15 26/06/2013

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Julia Gillard has delivered the ultimate act of leadership and paid a heavy price, ending the most poisonous, inglorious chapter in modern Labor Party history.

OPINION: But whether Kevin Rudd transforms Labor's prospects at the election depends on whether he can re-unite a fractured party that he helped divide, re-connect with a hostile electorate and challenge a rampant opposition.

Gillard's magnanimity in the end has made the transition easier; her decisiveness ensured that this was the last stand. Yes, her flaws made her vulnerable, but she will be remembered as one of the nation's most tenacious leaders.

Kevin Rudd has returned to the role that was cruelly snatched from him with a near impossible task. His battleplan is to keep as many ministers as want to stay, focus on the economy and go to the polls.

His main reason for breaking the pledge of unqualified loyalty to Gillard (one that was never honoured) was about polls and popularity, not policy – that without change the party faced a "catastrophic loss".

Bill Shorten, who played a key role in removing Rudd, justified his reluctant and critical defection from Gillard at the 11th hour on the same grounds: that Labor stands the best chance of defending the Gillard legacy under Rudd's leadership – not her's.

For the woman who carried the hopes of so many when she made history, three years ago on Monday, and who gave her all to the job, this is a difficult pill to digest. Barring an unlikely olive branch from Rudd, her career is over at 51.

While many Labor supporters will welcome the prospect of a more even contest, others will never forgive Rudd for undermining Gillard, almost from the moment she became the country's first female prime minister.

But his mischief-making was just one contributor to the diabolical position that Labor finds itself in. Others include Tony Abbott's relentless negativity, the pitfalls and stresses of minority government and the succession of misjudgments of Gillard and her most senior colleagues – from sticking with the surplus-at-all-costs pledge to the resort to class warfare rhetoric. They were the gang who couldn't shoot straight.

Post-mortems on this period – most likely after the election – must also examine the structure of the Labor Party, the distribution of power within government, the focus on the 24-hour news cycle, and the too-often missing ingredient in the Rudd and Gillard governments – courage from ministers and backbenchers to stand up to the PM when circumstance demanded it.

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Whether Rudd has learned the lessons of his first stint as leader and will be a better, more inclusive prime minister second time around is a big unknown. The proof will be in the doing – not the positive words on Wednesday night, nor the first opinion poll.

Once again, Gillard dictated the tactics but, this time, she dictated the terms, too – ensuring that this was a battle to the political death. The result was that a narrow win, either way, would be as good as a whopping victory.

She entered the contest with the initiative and a degree of confidence after her school funding reforms had passed through the parliament and Denis Napthine had agreed to negotiate on Victoria's participation.

But Rudd had the upper hand, thanks to a plethora of polls that, in his words, foreshadowed the greatest landslide defeat since federation. The prospect of losing more than 30 seats in the House and of Abbott winning control of the Senate pushed Gillard loyalists to a reluctant embrace with a man they neither like nor trust.

Now, but way too late, Labor has cauterised the bleeding that began that night Rudd was torn down. Recovery looms as a far more complex and demanding challenge and will make for a compelling postscript.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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