Julia vs Kevin

Flickr image by kabl1992The clamour for Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard to become prime minister has been fuelled by the recent Newspoll that shows she is very close to Kevin Rudd as preferred prime minister. For many it has become almost a fait accompli. But when and how might it happen? 

Gillard has all it takes to be an excellent prime minister. But she is right to deflect attention from calls for her elevation, whether it is immediate or during a second Labor term. If leader of the opposition is the worst job in politics then, for an ambitious person, deputy prime minister can also be extremely frustrating.

The historical record is on the side of leaders of the opposition. In recent times Rudd, Howard, Hawke, Fraser and Whitlam have come to the job from being opposition leader. The natural order of things is for the opposition to beat the government at an election and for its leader to then become prime minister.

There have been few if any smooth transitions from deputy to prime minister. One reason is that deputies are often not ambitious and are deputy for that reason. Another is that it is just too difficult to topple a prime minister.

Paul Keating fought Bob Hawke to the death from his position as treasurer then backbencher. Eventually he narrowly deposed Hawke in his second challenge. Keating was exhausted when he finally got his dream job.

Twenty years earlier John Gorton was toppled by his deputy, William McMahon, in March 1971. This happened after a poorer than expected performance in winning the 1969 federal election and subsequent destabilisation by Fraser. The vote was tied in the party room and Gorton effectively stood down.

This is the type of scenario implied by advocates of Gillard for PM. But it is a rare case. Furthermore, McMahon was defeated at the next election. He had inherited a poisoned chalice against a newly confident opposition leader, Whitlam. Is that really the scenario that Gillard supporters want? Can it be confidently assumed that she would revive a faltering Labor government by taking over mid-term against a rampant opposition?

If Labor wins the next election, Rudd will be entrenched for another term. If the Coalition wins by any margin Rudd will probably step down and Gillard is likely to become opposition leader.

If Labor was to win very narrowly, then the Gorton scenario might come into play. But the big difference is that the Gorton-McMahon challenge came at the very end of two decades of Coalition government. A Rudd-Gillard challenge would come early in a Labor ascendancy.

Gillard would have the confidence that stems from public popularity demonstrated by opinion polls. She had more support than Rudd among the anti-Beazley forces in 2006. She is regarded as a minister who has performed well in a super-sized portfolio. The strength of her parliamentary performances in the bear pit is widely applauded.

But would her colleagues destabilise a second term Labor government to install her? That is highly doubtful, especially given her place on the Left within the factions. Rudd, whatever the size of his victory, might have seen off yet another opposition leader and would have an impressive number of scalps to his credit. He could point to Howard who squeaked back into office in 1998 before embarking on a long career as prime minister.

Gillard is caught in the terrible position of knowing that her best chance of becoming prime minister might be from opposition. This would mean Labor losing in 2010 and rising from the ashes in 2013 under her leadership. That is a risky proposition.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science with the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

Topic tags: Julia Gillard, prime minister, leadership challenge, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, John Gorton, William McMahon



submit a comment

Existing comments

There is some sense in John Warhurst's proposition. In hindsight, it would have been better for the Coalition to have won the 07 election and for the GFC to have busted the Libs' myth balloon that they're the financial genius they claim to be. At least, the following half Senate election would have changed the Federal political landscape with a greater Greens presence.

When Labor is finally returned at the 2009/10 election it would not have to face a combination of a hostile Senate and a recalcitrant Opposition as it does now.

All the same, the prospect of an Abbott-led government should scare us all. It will be an ultra-conservative government that is bent on reincarnating the worst of Australian politics from the decade-plus years of Howardism, elected by a largely politically-challenged electorate. We will be relegated to the backwaters of a rapidly changing world.

Alex Njoo | 31 May 2010  

If there is a fear we may have an 'ultra conservative' government with Abbott in power, I think we have more to fear in the 'ultra left wing' politics of Gillard. All our democratic rights to choose, currently slowly being eroded, will certainly be further eroded, if Gillard should become leader, and further she will "speak for all Australians",[not this one] as she often says, telling us what we think and how we should think. I say NO THANKS Julia, or come to that Rudd.

penny | 31 May 2010  

I think you are forgetting the changed nature of the modern world. Higher interconnectivity between politicians, journalists and the electorate means pressure is more intense.

If Rudd won unconvincingly, Julia would HAVE TO challenge. Otherwise she would be seen as culpable in any further policy mess-ups, and be challenged in turn from elsewhere in the party.

Rudd is fatally injured. The one who refuses to walk behind the curtain with the shotty (thanks Roy&HG!) will be passed over for someone who will.

I would in fact stake money on this outcome. A substantial amount.

Ben Heslop | 31 May 2010  

Come on Penny! Gillard is not the only one proposing "to speak for all Australians"! One just have to look at what Howard did to Aboriginal Australians supposedly for their own good through the Northern Territory "Intervention"!

Peter Sabatino | 31 May 2010  

You can be sure of one thing...Gaza Gillard will NOT BE PM...she has numerous enemies in the party who will do whatever it takes to push her aside.

Kevin Charles Herbert | 31 May 2010  

To say that Julia Gillard 'is very close to Kevin Rudd as preferred prime minister' is saying less than zero. The former member for Penrith, Karyn Paluzzano would be 'very close to Kevin Rudd as perferred prime minister' right now. I think a two-toed sloth with a Graham Freudenberg speech in its claw could beat Kevin Rudd to the Lodge right now. Rudd is without doubt the most disappointing prime minister in memory. Howard did not disappoint because no one expected much from him except a 'steady pair of hands' but Rudd came with a lot of good will that has since been squandered. He has betrayed all those who voted for him (I voted Green) in so many ways that he cannot repair the damage to his credibility. Julia Gillard could not possibly do worse than Rudd so if there was a leadership contest I'd have all fingers firmly crossed for Gillard. However, it seems only the conservative can contest the top job these days so Gillard would need to do a Garett and bury all principals for the sake of power.

david akenson | 31 May 2010  

Julia is the ALP star at the moment.She wipes the floor with dopey Kevin07. He has lost the plot and is as good at lying as Abbott.

Daniel | 31 May 2010  

Julia is a cold and disgraceful coward.

Marilyn Shepherd | 01 June 2010  

Gillard neds to get public education back on side. Her espousal of Naplan testing demonstrates a lack of understanding that education is about more than preparing students for tests. Critical thinking and questioning of values are all founded on good education. Teacher opposition to the tests is based on the sacrifice of time in the classroom as schools are forced to prepare children to compete. Has Gillard actually spoken to a primary teacher about the tests?

Australia has a proud educational history in both public and private spheres.

Our universities were once regarded as centres of excellence worldwide. They have been consistently starved of government funds and now no longer enjoy the same reputation.

TAFE has had real success as a solution to skills shortages, a trade trainer and a provider of second chance educational opportunities. It too has seen government funding cut. Gillard recently announced a windfall of $50million to "private providers". Why not TAFE?

I want my PM to champion public education, to fund it adequately and to encourage private education to keep up to its standard.

Dianne Mullin | 01 June 2010  

Government where a small number of the population select the leader is called oligarchy. I prefer democracy where we have a direct vote for prime minister, and a recall provision where we could replace that prime minister if the prime minister proves unsatisfactory. I prefer Julia Gillard as prime minister, but our oligarchical system of government allows me no mechanism to express that choice.

David Fisher | 04 June 2010  

Those advocating for Human Rights, Refugees and asylum seekers have much to fear from Ms Gillard as PM. She has shown herself to have no sympathy or compassion for refugees. While Kevin Rudd holds a finger to the wind to determine refugee policy, Ms Gillard operates from an inherent lack of empathy or understanding for the vulnerable.

They are both a disgrace to themselves and the Labor Party and a hindrance to this nation emerging from the hate based, refugee bashing politics currently being promoted.

They are devoid of vision or insight. If we think fire and flood are a threat to Australia, imagine what the promotion of hate, division and fear mongering can do especially in an economic down turn.

pamela | 04 June 2010  

It's a worry when even our political science academics have joined the populist chorus of anthems for politicians over policies. This piece reflects the single greatest problem we have in politics today: a media-led meat market in which policies, values, global thinking about local action, counter-alienation and social justice etc. are all just too hard. Personality politics, led by the media, is much easier, more predictable and packages more comfortably with the market place consumerism that has largely replaced ideas about social obligation, personal and collective responsibility and the human rights of those at the bottom of the global heap.

Whether Gillard or Rudd is irrelevant: what counts is people and policy. But of course that would send the media back to its traditional and less glamorous role of reporting the news, including the political news, instead of making and marketing it.

Dr Frank Donovan | 04 June 2010  

What a disaster it would be for the Church if a pro-abortion EMILY's list politician became the leader of this country.

The unborn babies of this nation will be turning in their wombs!

Alexander | 04 June 2010  

Having demonstrated no idea how to manage expenditure Julia Gillard will not have my vote. She is, like most Labor people, totally without experience in the real world hving only worked for politicians or in union offices. Never run a business, been responsible for employees wages etc.

As for refugees - if they WILL NOT intergrate we should not be accepting them at all.

Rhyl Dearden | 22 June 2010  

Gillard deserves to lose the election after her deceitfulness and self-serving actions. Does she really expect us to believe that she overthrew Kevin for the benefit of the country, not for her own greed?

May Dhenorsen | 24 June 2010  

Gillard will never get my vote "period". She saw an opportunity coming and took advantage! I am a uni student just like many other and a person who has to work on the side to get by, just like many other; thanks to Rudd, I did not lose my job through the recession like how many of my friends did over in Canada and US. I think Rudd did pretty well and I don't care if I have to vote for greens (will never for Abbott) but it will not be Gillard.

Mr. W | 24 June 2010  

Revisiting Julia v Kevin. When will people realise, as some of your correspondents seem not to, that in this country we do not elect PMs. We vote a party in to form a government. The party has the right to choose a leader who will become the PM in the event of an electoral victory. The basis of our votes depends on the principles that we believe a particular party holds. It is ludicrous to trivialise our political process on the basis of personality. If that's the case, no one in his/her right mind should, in all decency, vote for Abbott with his record on women issues (abortion as a national tragedy) work choices and is homophobic among other things. All the same, in this case, his beliefs reflect the general Libs' principles as well. Even some of my staunch Catholic friends don't subscribe to Abbott's fundamental beliefs of condemning everything that's deemed to be against the very principles of (his) Catholicism.

Alex Njoo | 05 August 2010  

I have no doubt that Kevin Rudd would have had an easy win but for Gillard's dagger in his back. I don't support either Kevin or Gillard. I must admit she is every bit as qualified to lead Australia as any other strong politician she has all the required qualities that she openly demonstrated already. She tells election lies with ease and doesn’t blush, she has no ethics or morals and as for being of the left faction of the Labor Party well she can betray with the best of them and she is a woman. All the qualities required for the perfect Australian Prime Minister today.

Zann | 14 March 2011  

Similar Articles

Hello Israel, might we talk about your nukes?

  • Nicholas Taylor
  • 04 June 2010

The negotiation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone is the only non-proliferation initiative to have been accepted by all Middle East states, including Israel. Why has it taken 30 years? Because Egypt, Israel and Iran have competing reasons for promoting the idea.


Coalition's new nasties for asylum seekers

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 31 May 2010

The Coalition's new asylum seeker policy returns to the policy it put into practice under Mr Howard, adding new nasties. The Government's asylum seeker policy is bad; the Coalition's is worse. It is designed to appeal to human baseness, not to human generosity.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up