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Obama congratulates first female Australian prime minister

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: President Obama congratulates first female prime minister of Australia
  • "The government was losing its way," says Prime Minister Julia Gillard
  • Vote came moments after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's position was declared vacant by Labor Party
  • Despite ouster, Rudd says he'll work to ensure victory for Labor Party in next election

Sydney, Australia (CNN) -- President Barack Obama is welcoming the new Australian Prime Minister to the club of world leaders.

The White House press office released a statement Thursday saying, "President Obama offers his congratulations to Julia Gillard on her assumption of the position of Prime Minister of Australia and on the historic step of becoming Australia's first female prime minister. The United States and Australia enjoy a special and productive relationship and alliance that will continue to prosper under her leadership. The President looks forward to working with Prime Minister Gillard across the broad range of issues on which the United States and Australia currently enjoy strong and deep cooperation and looks forward to speaking with her soon. The President also wishes to extend his thanks and best wishes to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who remains a great friend of America."

The Labor Party elected Gillard, 48, as prime minister Thursday after it declared vacant the positions of leader and deputy leader, ending Rudd's two and a half years as prime minister.

Gillard said that she had respect for Rudd's leadership, but moved to replace him because "I came to the view that the government was losing its way" and she wanted "to make sure this government got back on track."

Gillard said she was aware that the move makes her the nation's first woman in that position, "and maybe the first redhead," but said, "I didn't set out to crash my head on any glass ceilings; I set out to keep my feet on the floor."

The party also chose Wayne Swan, who served as treasurer of Rudd's government, to serve as deputy.

Gillard said she would call for a general election "in coming months," but did not specify when.

Gillard said she would work to harness wind and solar energy and to pursue putting a price on carbon emissions, but said she would not address the latter goal -- which her predecessor had been unable to achieve -- until after a general election. "First, we will need to establish a common consensus for action," she said.

Gillard said she would also pursue increasing taxes on mining companies, another issue that had stirred controversy and fierce opposition from the industry.

"Australians are entitled to a fairer share of our inheritance of the mineral wealth that lies in our grounds," she said. But the recent uncertainty over mining taxes must end, she said, and she invited the powerful mining industry to negotiate.

"I am opening the government's door to the mining industry, and I ask that, in return, the mining industry throws open its mind." Gillard said she would immediately end government advertisements on the matter and called on the industry "as a show of good faith and mutual respect" to end its ads.

Gillard worked her way through the ranks of the union movement, which is at the heart of the Australian Labor Party. She was largely seen as an effective and loyal deputy.

"Julia's unique, hard-working, passionate, driven by noble ideals and wants to do good things for the country," her father John Gillard told CNN affiliate 7 Network Australia.

Born in Wales, she moved with her parents to Australia when she was a child. After studying law, she was elected to the House of Representatives for Labor, Victoria, in 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2007, prior to joining Rudd as deputy prime minister.

Despite being ousted, Rudd said that he would work to ensure the re-election of the Labor government. "They're a good team led by a good prime minister," he said, then hastened to add, "I meant Julia, not me."

CNN's Stan Grant contributed to this story from Sydney