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Australian Labor Party’s Rumble Down Under

In an effort to forestall an upcoming election defeat, an Australian government minister called for an internal election to oust Prime Minister Julia Gillard from power. The coup failed, but the party is still grappling with the political fallout.

Kevin Rudd, a former Labor PM thrown out in a 2010 party coup, was widely regarded as popular enough to defeat the embattled Gillard. But he refused to contest Gillard’s leadership. In a column in Australia’s daily paper The Age, Peter Hartcher writes:

He had sworn that he would not challenge Ms Gillard but would only take the Labor leadership again if drafted in by an overwhelming majority, and if the position were vacant.

Ms Gillard turned out to be prepared to vacate the leadership to settle the matter, but Mr Rudd was not handed the overwhelming majority he demanded. “If he had actually lifted the phone” to lobby for votes, said one of his dismayed allies on Thursday evening, “he’d be prime minister now”.

But he insisted on the sanctity of his pledge, even though it doomed his cause and exposed his supporters to the wrath of the prime minister.

Now many of the conspirators in the failed coup have left or been thrown out of their government positions, and the Labor government continues its grim march to major electoral defeat this September.

To understand what’s going on in Australia, consider their American counterparts in the Democratic party. Prime Minister Gillard is the President Obama of Australian Labor politics and Kevin Rudd is more like Hilary Clinton. Obama and Gillard are died-in-the-wool, true-blue liberals, while Hilary and Rudd are more moderate pragmatists. In the US, both wings of the Democratic Party were able to stay together; in Australia personality and policy differences between the left and right wings of the Labor party are tearing it apart.

Part of the pressure is coming from outside the party. These divisions are so strong partly because Gillard needed to form a coalition with the Green Party to stay in power. This partnership locked her into supporting environmental legislation she had promised she wouldn’t, pulling her further to the left than many influential voices in her party.

So now the Australian Labor party is beginning to tear itself apart. A party so consumed by unresolved rivalries and leadership ambitions is going to have a tough time appealing to swing voters and staying in power. In 2014 and 2016 US Democrats will have to manage some similar tensions, as the party’s green wing pushes the administration to take stronger stances on environmental issues than the centrist parts of the party are comfortable with. The next elections are shaping up to be every interesting indeed.

[Picture of Australia from Shutterstock]

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