Australia gained its first woman prime minister — and lost a once-adored leader — on Thursday after a cloak-and-dagger plot hatched by shadowy backroom operators.
Though appearing to head a stable, if weakened, government, Kevin Rudd was suddenly deposed in a hasty and undignified fall from grace, less than three years after being elected in a landslide.
The dramatic events that ended with Julia Gillard sworn in as prime minister were precipitated far from the public eye, and had started unfolding only 24 hours earlier, according to widespread media reports.
Discontent had been festering in the Labor Party as Rudd’s consistently high public support fell after a series of policy blunders, with national elections just months away.
Early on Wednesday, delegates from Labor’s powerful right-wing faction requested a private meeting with Gillard, Rudd’s deputy, to offer their support in a leadership challenge.
Though incensed at revelations that Rudd had questioned her loyal support, Gillard refused to give an answer.
But the meeting was to prove crucial for Gillard, who was previously supported only by the party’s left.
Bill Shorten, former head of the Australian Workers’ Union, and New South Wales kingmaker Mark Arbib spearheaded the push, assisted by two Labor senators with a long-standing animosity towards Rudd, David Feeney and Don Farrell. Feeney and Farrell were both carpeted by Rudd in a foul-mouthed tirade last September, when they met with him to complain about the slashing of MPs’ entitlements.
On Wednesday, Gillard confronted Rudd in his office at Parliament House in Canberra, in talks that lasted several hours and prompted fevered media speculation. Rudd finally stormed out of the meeting at about 10:00 pm and announced a leadership ballot to bewildered journalists.
“I was elected by the people of Australia to do a job,” Rudd fumed. “I was not elected by the factional leaders of the Australian Labor Party to do a job, though they may be seeking to do a job on me, that’s a separate matter.”
Less than 12 hours later, shortly after 9:00 am on Thursday, Labor announced that Rudd had stood aside in the party vote, allowing Gillard to be elected unopposed.