PM Julia Gillard.SHAKESPEARE could not have written a more enthralling tale of deception and intrigue.
Nanjing Night Net

Backstabbing, vitriol and tales of long-fermenting woe have been the narrative during this week’s showdown between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and spurned former leader Kevin Rudd.

Sure, we’ve seen leadership tussles before, Australia is well-known for treating politics as a blood sport.

But this one is different. More vicious. More Machiavellian.

To some extent, we should not be that surprised.

A sink-or-swim attitude towards party leadership has come to the fore, as a quick glance at recent history will show.

Out of the 32 opposition leaders have served since 1901 when Australia came together as a federation, only one never faced an election during the first nine decades.

(John Latham was the unlucky leader, for those interested).

However in the past two decades, Alexander Downer, Simon Crean, Kim Beazley (in his second stint), Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull all faced the axe before they even reached the ballot box.

Why is this so?

A lot of it has to do with opinion polls and greater scrutiny of those at the top.

The fortnightly Galaxy, Nielsen and Newspolls keep political enthusiasts entertained but they’re also closely dissected by powerbrokers. Those unfortunate enough to have a statistical dip get knifed.

Death by a half-dozen popularity cuts used to be an affliction solely contained to opposition parties.

No longer. Now the Prime Minister has to watch his or her back in case their popularity starts to nosedive.

Rudd did not face the ballot box in August 2010 largely because his approval rating had slumped in the weeks prior to the June 2010 leader switch.

While there were other factors in play such as his managerial style, this was the main excuse given at the time.

Rudd would have been the odds-on favourite to win the 2010 election for Labor despite the opinion polls because Australians are reluctant to kick out a leader after one term.

Even John Howard claimed in his autobiography Lazarus Rising that Rudd would have won the 2010 poll, maybe with a reduced majority.

That’s why the Liberal Party was best served keeping Howard at the top during the 2007 election. Any push by Peter Costello would have seen Howard’s personal vote evaporate.

Costello may have won if Howard retired but any forced resignation would have been political suicide.

Howard worked to build up a rapport with the Australian public just as Rudd has managed to in recent years.

Leaders need time to grow, building trust and confidence along the way.

Chopping and changing captains does not instil confidence in the electorate and they will vote accordingly. It’s even worse when that leader happens to be the prime minister.

While the numerous policy bungles and turbulence of heading a minority government have taken its toll, the leadership coup is the biggest reason why Gillard has never been able to recover her popularity since taking over in June 2010.

If Rudd was such a wrong fit to lead the Labor Party, its caucus shouldn’t have appointed him as leader in 2006. Furthermore, if there was a such a need to get rid of him and they were so certain he would lose then they should have left him in The Lodge until August 2010.

Under their scenario, they could have appointed Julia Gillard (or whoever else) as opposition leader and contested the next election with a fresh face.

This week’s events could have largely been avoided if the chop-and-change attitude that pervades our political parties was dispensed with.

Instead, the government has transformed into either a comedic tragedy or a tragic comedy. And the drama has only just begun.

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