Australia: What's going on?
Australians turned on the news last week to find their country had a new prime minister, without an election having been held.
Australia's new prime minister is its old prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who had held the office from 2007 to 2010.
From his first days in office, Rudd introduced major changes to the country's policies. He apologized to the Aboriginal population for the way it had been treated during the previous 200 years. He made Australia, one of the world's largest per-capita producers of greenhouse gases, a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol and took steps to fight climate change. Rudd, a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese, also improved relations with the People's Republic of China, which kept the Chinese interested in buying coal and minerals from Australia.
Rudd was, however, perceived by some to be too distant and intellectual to be popular. Afraid that the Labor Party he represented would lose the next election in 2010, his deputy, Julia Gillard, challenged him for the party leadership and won. Rudd resigned as prime minister, but continued on as foreign minister. Gillard won the election, albeit with a minority government.
Three years later, another election is coming up, and once again the Labor Party doesn't appear likely to win it. As Spotlight columnist Peter Flynn reports, Labor has been connected to a number of scandals having to do with money, power and influence. Gillard has turned out to be a polarizing figure, within her party and among Australians in general. Further, now that the global financial crisis is starting to be felt in China, Australia is being pulled into a recession for the first time for 23 years.
The man most likely to save the party is, well, Kevin Rudd. So he challenged Gillard for the party leadership last week, agreeing with her in advance that whichever of them lost the challenge would leave politics permanently. This time, the party delegates voted for Rudd. Gillard stepped down as prime minister, handing the position over to Rudd.
This development has come as something of a surprise to Australians. Gillard had set a date in mid-September for the next election, but so far Rudd has not. The election could take place any time between 4 August and 30 November. Fortunately for Labor, opposition leader Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party is also very unpopular. The Rudd factor may reset some of the dials. The next few months will be interesting to watch.
Download Peter Flynn's Around Oz column from the June issue of Spotlight — free. You can also read about the Australian economy in Peter Flynn's column in the August magazine.
Update, 5 August: Rudd has set 7 September as the date for the election. He says the election will be about which candidate voters can trust, while Abbott says it will be about "who is more fair dinkum".
Read more: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calls September 7 federal election