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Party keeps faith with Gillard but will Australia's voters?

By Monica Attard for CNN
updated 6:38 PM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
Kevin Rudd (right) has declined to challenge Prime Minister Julia Gillard (left) for the Australian leadership.
Kevin Rudd (right) has declined to challenge Prime Minister Julia Gillard (left) for the Australian leadership.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Australia's prime minister retains leadership after snap vote
  • No challengers emerged to oust Julia Gillard as leader of ruling party
  • Chief rival Kevin Rudd declined to pit himself against her -- against expectations
  • Attard: Gillard deeply unpopular with many Australian voters

Editor's note: Monica Attard is a former journalist and Russia correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). She is an author and lawyer and has won multiple awards for her journalism.

Sydney, Australia (CNN) -- All that is old is new again in the world of Australian politics. The weather might be generally pleasant, but the way the nation plays politics is brutal.

The country was briefly thrown into turmoil Thursday when Premier Julia Gillard opened the leadership of the ruling Australian Labor Party -- and the prime ministership -- to a vote of the parliamentary party, the second in little over a year.

In the end, the man the prime minister ousted in 2010, Kevin Rudd, didn't put his hand up for the job despite all expectations. He said his decision was born of altruism: he had promised after his failed challenge in February 2012 that he wouldn't ever do so again.

READ: The leadership challenge that never was

"I take my word seriously," he said.

But deeply unpopular within the parliamentary party, Rudd clearly did not have the numbers to win a challenge.

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The only person who nominated for the leadership was Gillard herself. Both she and her deputy, Treasurer Wayne Swan, were unanimously re-elected by their parliamentary colleagues to lead the party and the nation.

Whether the ballot ends the discontent that has been festering within the ALP since June 2010, when Gillard tossed Rudd out of office is doubtful, despite what she said after the vote.

"This whole business is completely at an end," she declared.

Whether the ballot pleases Australian voters who, poll after poll, have declared their displeasure with the prime minister and their support for Rudd, is also doubtful. The answer will only become definitively known on September 14, when Australians go to the polls to give their verdict on the Gillard government. The latest Neilson poll puts Labor's share of the primary vote at 31%, which would leave the ALP, and with it Australia's first female leader, spectacularly trounced.

But some things are certain: the Australian premier is feisty and determined, if not popular. And the ballot result was far less sensational than the events leading up to it.

It was one of her most senior ministers, ALP veteran Simon Crean, who burst what had become a festering blister of leadership discontent.

"I don't want any more games, I'm sick to death of it, it's about time he (Rudd) stood up and instead of having his camp leak things, actually have the courage of his conviction and his beliefs," Crean declared.

Crean was amongst a group who had voted for Gillard in the last challenge but changed allegiance. Curiously, before his intervention, Crean had not consulted Rudd to ensure he would challenge. Crean has now been sacked and others who were similarly eager for Rudd to challenge may follow.

It's been a dramatic week for the Labor Party that has left the Opposition leader, the leader of the Greens and the independents, upon which the government relies for support, scratching their heads and asking what is going on.

Earlier, the government had tried to introduce a tranche of contentious media reform bills that failed to win support despite the prime minister herself, known for her persuasive skills, taking over negotiation with crucial independent parliamentary members. Her ability to salvage the bills was widely seen as a test of her leadership. The negotiations collapsed.

This failure compounded the destabilization within the ALP that hasn't abated since the 2010 ousting of Rudd by a deputy who had so often declared her loyalty to a leader who had delivered the party a thumping victory in 2007.

At the time, Gillard justified the ousting of a sitting prime minister by saying "a good government had lost its way." But the removal of Rudd left a stunned nation deeply skeptical of its new leader. Few believed she had not planned the coup. In the election she called in late 2010, Gillard failed to win outright and for the first time since 1940, Australia is ruled by a minority government.

The Chinese-speaking Rudd, relegated to foreign minister, was regularly accused of plotting against his successor. It was Crean, who has now turned on Gillard and paid with his job, who called for Rudd's sacking at the time.

The message that the people of Australia have received from this government is that nothing is resolved, the civil war goes on.
Tony Abbot, oppostion leader

Rudd resigned, regrouped and challenged his successor for the leadership in February 2012. But he failed to secure the support he needed to snatch back the prime ministership and promised to end the animosity.

But even from the backbench, his rock star visibility has been extraordinary. He has garnered a huge social media following and is a prolific Tweeter. Rudd has also been a public event opportunist, appearing at schools, fetes and various other events, justifying every public outing as an act of devotion to the fight to keep the opposition from snatching victory.

All the while, Prime Minister Gillard battled not only bad public polling and an omnipresent predecessor but also the perception of trustworthiness. Having promised before the 2010 election she would not introduce a carbon tax, she subsequently did so. There were also unfounded claims about her role in a union backed slush fund decades before she entered parliament.

A brief reprieve came in October 2012 when Gillard delivered a blistering speech attacking the opposition leader Tony Abbott for what she called his misogyny.

READ: Gillard blasts opposition leader

Despite her popularity woes and mutterings that the ALP could not win the September 14 election with Gillard in the saddle, her government has managed to keep Australia economically sound. Although it was under Rudd's management that Australia escaped the worst of the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, Prime Minister Gillard has maintained the country's sound economic credentials, with steady growth and low unemployment. Her minority government has introduced a national disability insurance scheme and appears on track to usher in education reform.

Even her detractors laud her determination and strength.

As the prime minister entered parliament after Crean's intervention, she declared the leadership ballot, mooted Crean's departure and goaded the opposition.

"Take your best shot," she angrily declared.

The Opposition leader immediately moved a vote of no confidence, which would trigger an immediate election.

Abbott delivered his best shot.

"For your party's good, you should go," he told her.

"For our countries good, you should go. You should go."

The no confidence motion never came to a vote because the government called for its suspension and narrowly won.

Government ministers are now on the media talk circuit. One after another, cabinet ministers are declaring "it is over."

But on a bizarre day when very little is known about the motives or logic of any of the players, it is clear the Gillard government's troubles are far from over. Few believe the divisions with her party have been healed simply because Rudd did not garner the support he needed to challenge her.

"The message that the people of Australia have received from this government is that nothing is resolved, the civil war goes on," said Abbott, calling for an immediate election.

"The civil war will continue as long as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are in the Parliament."

All eyes now are on the independents that keep the government propped up. Three of five voted to debate the no confidence motion.

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