Gillard survives but Labor must lick its wounds

By David McMahon

The Straits Times Foreign Desk

Ms Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister, survived the threat of a leadership spill in Canberra today after her predecessor Kevin Rudd refused to mount a challenge.

In February 2013, Mr Rudd led an abortive challenge, when he only mustered 31 votes to the PM’s 71.

Even though Ms Gillard has retained power and continues to lead a minority government, the events of the past week have severely damaged the long-term prospects of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Deep schisms within the senior ranks of the ALP, founded in 1901, became apparent in early 2010, during Mr Rudd’s tenure as prime minister.

Ms Gillard, who was then deputy prime minister, challenged and replaced him in June 2010. However, she refused to move into The Lodge, the official residence of the Australian prime minister, vowing not to do so until she was democratically elected to the post.

True to her word, she only moved in after she broke the deadlock of a tied election in August 2010 to form a minority government in September that year.

While state and federal politics in Australia do not necessarily overlap, Ms Gillard’s leadership has coincided with widespread disenchantment with Labor both federally and at state level, as reflected in a long-running series of opinion polls.

Compounding the party’s problems, the ALP has also been swept from power in four states - Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia.

Facing a federal election in September this year, Ms Gillard must somehow convince a sceptical electorate that her party deserves the right to another term.

The deep divisions within the party - more apparent this week than before - will be a major challenge if she is to improve her party’s position in the opinion polls, even before she faces the national electorate in September.

Before Ms Gillard retained her post today, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott described her government as “incompetent”. He then asked: “Does the Prime Minister agree with former prime minister Bob Hawke that if you can’t govern yourselves, you can't govern the country?”

Ms Gillard's reply echoed a constant theme in response to the validity of her long-term prospects.

“I certainly believe that as a government you’ve got to keep your focus on the things that matter to the Australian people and that's where my focus is.”