The very Australian coup lasted just 60 minutes, but it had been in the making for three years.
At 7 p.m. on Monday, Labor Party MPs and senators entered their caucus room in the stunning Australian Parliament in Canberra. An hour later, by a 57-45 vote, Julia Gillard was out as prime minister and party leader, and Kevin Rudd was in.
It was a swift, brutal, ruthless change – just as it had been three years before when Ms. Gillard stuck a knife in Mr. Rudd’s political back and mounted a successful coup against him. He was out, she was in, and he never, ever forgot. She ran the country, he toured the country (and the world), keeping his profile high and his revanchiste plans alive.
No high-minded principles were involved. Labor faced a crushing defeat in the election expected in September. Political desperation changed calculations, broke friendships, shredded loyalty. When Bill Shorten, a big-shot union leader, decided to switch from Ms. Gillard to Mr. Rudd, her time was up. He figured, as apparently did a majority of the caucus, that Ms. Gillard would lead the party to a massive defeat. Mr. Rudd might either pull off a miracle comeback or at least mitigate the size of the defeat.
Talk about blood sport. Canadians may think politics is rough here, but it’s child’s play compared to this aspect of politics Down Under. In the Australian system, the party caucus – and only the party caucus – can unseat a leader. No consulting of the party membership. No leadership conventions. No voice for supporters in parliamentary seats the party does not hold.
Australians seem to like it this way. The Rudd-Gillard coup/counter-coup is part of a pattern that goes way back in the country’s political history. Leaders have been toppled this way before. Others have been threatened.
For example, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to the Australian Parliament in 2007, that very day’s papers were full of stories about intrigue and plotting by environment minister Malcolm Turnbull to dethrone long-serving Liberal prime minister John Howard.
There had been secret meetings in Sydney hotel rooms, endless phone calls (your intrepid correspondent had an interview with Mr. Turnbull that morning that was repeatedly interrupted by furtive telephone conversations). In the end, the demand for a caucus vote on Mr. Howard’s leadership never happened, but it was a near-run thing. Every twist in the tale was reported in detail in the Australian newspapers, where everyone from the prime minister down in politics talks to the press, sometimes on but often off the record.
Nothing like this could happen in Canada. Here, backbenchers can grumble, as some are now doing about the Conservative Party’s standing in the polls. But even if they wanted to change leaders, the caucus could never do it alone. MPs theoretically could go public with their dissent. They could in the most extreme circumstances circulate a public letter calling for the leader’s ouster. But ultimately, the choice of a leader rests with the party membership, not the parliamentary caucus.
Australians, challenged about such coups, reply huffily that theirs is a more “democratic” system. They argue that a leader under constant surveillance must stay on his or her toes. MPs, the argument goes, are close to their constituents, and therefore offer a reasonable test of how the leader and party are connecting with the people.
In theory, this system forces the leader to stay in close touch with the caucus. One irony of the current leadership change is that when Mr. Rudd was prime minister, cabinet ministers and caucus colleagues complained about his isolation. Yet three years later, he is deemed to be the Labor Party’s born-again saviour.
In the interim, Mr. Rudd said he had no plans to return as leader – while planning just that eventuality. Twenty-two months ago in Canada, where he delivered several speeches and visited Foreign Minister John Baird, he and his people were in constant long-distance contact about political machinations back home.
Mr. Rudd never gave up the dream of a comeback. And now, he’s prime minister, courtesy of another very Australian coup.