The Null Device


Australia has a new Prime Minister; after losing the support of the government, Kevin Rudd has declined to contest a leadership vote, and handed the reins to his deputy, Julia Gillard, who is now Australia's first woman prime minister.

Rudd's departure is probably a good idea; Rudd was the right man for the job in 2007, being slightly more progressive than conservative hardliner John Howard but not enough to scare a public that had grown used to "relaxed and comfortable" paternalism. He courted the religious-Right groups who flourished under Howard, and kept his faith to them, offering to impose a Chinese-style national internet firewall, backed by Australia's already prudish censorship criteria, on the country. (Rudd's social conservatism wasn't an act; at one point, he upbraided a PhD student for shirking her reproductive duty to society.) Meanwhile, by all accounts, he didn't make many friends in the Labor Party, having an autocratic style, but without the glib Tony Blair-level charisma to pull it off. In any case, we saw the unprecedented situation where, despite the conservative administration having been effectively decapitated in the last election, and the government having presided over Australia being one of the few countries to avoid the recession, opinion polls were pointing to the conservatives—led by a hardline religious conservative popularly nicknamed the "Mad Monk"—being poised to win the next election. Perhaps Gillard, by all accounts a competent, measured player, will manage to steady the ship of state?

Of course, nobody can tell how the next election will unfold yet. Labor's new, more competent, helmsperson may help them; the change of leadership might have harmed them, but the conservatives are in no position to criticise it. Labor will have to move towards the left, at least on social issues; they will have lost some of the wowsers whom Rudd so assiduously courted just by virtue of his no longer being in power, and some percentage of the reactionary rump of the electorate would take issue with the party being led by a woman (especially one with trade-union sympathies and no children). So Labor loses the wowsers, but picks up the inner-city voters thinking of deserting them for the Greens, who now have to wait another decade or so for a chance to grab their first lower-house seats. Meanwhile, as the wowsers come home to the Coalition, Abbott's somewhat unconvincing mask will slip, and the moderates who were flirting with the idea that maybe the Tories are the lesser evil jump ship back to Labor. The cat's cradle of politics untangles itself, and we end up with a moderate/centrist Labor Party (socially progressive on some symbolic issues though largely managerial in style) and a coalition frantically dog-whistling at the global-warming deniers, religious foamers and xenophobes.

australia julia gillard politics psephology 1