Rudd has won the leadership but is trailing the polls to the Liberal Coalition opposition
Analysts say there is little chance he will claw back the widening gap to win the federal elections
Rudd was admired by the electorate but had a fractious relationship with colleagues and staffers
Analysts say he faces a difficult road ahead convincing the party and the electorate things have changed
Having regained the premiership in a carefully laid political coup, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has served his revenge on Julia Gillard, the woman who wrested the Australian Labor Party leadership from him in 2010.
Now his most difficult challenge lies ahead.
He not only must hold together a badly fractured party, but also steer it through an election that pollsters say it is condemned to lose.
While polls showed that Rudd, rather than Gillard, would make gains on the opposition Liberal Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, many say that with federal elections only months away it is now too late for him to close the gap on his rival.
A Newspoll poll taken between May 31 and June 2 this year showed support for the center-right Liberal Coalition at 46% while the center-left Australian Labor Party trailed at 30% - one of its most catastrophic poll ratings in decades.
For Australia’s political commentators, however, Rudd’s return is as enigmatic as his personality.
“Kevin Rudd is resurrected, Julia Gillard’s career is destroyed and Rudd has launched a new crusade to halt the Tony Abbott bandwagon,” veteran commentator Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian newspaper.
“This is the dramatic trifecta that pivots the 2013 election upon an unpredictable new axis. In grim desperation the Labor Party has voted for its self-survival in a bid to deny or cripple an Abbott government.”
The political spill that allowed Julia Gillard to take the leadership from him in 2010 was led largely by the poor standing Rudd was held in by his own party. Until his spectacular fall, he was one of Australia’s most popular prime ministers in living history.
Rudd was riding high in the polls, having sidestepped the recession that hit most developed economies in the 2008 global financial crisis and formally apologizing to Australia’s Aboriginal People for past abuses. A Mandarin-speaking career diplomat, he played well on the international stage.
But when the tide turned against him over his sudden change of policy on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Rudd – who famously has no faction within a notoriously tribal Labor Party – was a hostage to the polls. As soon as his popularity with the public began to sink, even marginally, Rudd had few allies and the party rounded on him.
A chief task for Rudd will be to mend his reputation for irritability, moodiness and inconsistency that saw him loathed by his own party, observers say. To many of the Labor Party faithful, Rudd’s conservative work ethic and vocal Christianity comes across as overly preachy and hard-edged.
“When we helped him win the election in 2007 he got up on the podium in Brisbane and colossally party-pooped everyone on election night saying: ‘Right kids. Good job. Have an early night because we have to get up early - we’ve got a lot of work to do’,” one former Labor Party strategist who did not want to be named told CNN.
“Right then I thought ‘Oh no, what have we done? We’ve voted in some kind of Baptist!’”
Rudd was known as an intense networker even during his days as Director-General of the Office of the Cabinet under the 1980s Queensland government of Wayne Goss – a position that arguably made him Queensland’s most powerful bureaucrat.
“He showed his control-freaky side even then by excluding others from Goss. He had an inter-connecting office door from his office to Goss’s that Labor Party staff used to call ‘the catflap’,” the former party worker said.
His inability to delegate meant that senior bureaucrats were often in the dark about important areas of policy which were reportedly sometimes announced at the last minute at press conferences.
“The Cabinet and ministers were gobsmacked – that’s when they moved in on him and installed Gillard,” he said.
Rudd has made much of his humble origins and a childhood brush with poverty – a period that saw his family for a brief stint homeless and living in a car. While this may have endeared him to the nation, Labor Party staffers complain that his background also makes him a cold micromanager who is unable to share power.
Analysts now say that whether he can claw back anything close to a victory at the federal elections – or even ensure the party’s survival at future elections - will depend on whether he can restore his reputation with his own party.
“Labor has been dragged kicking and screaming towards its survival - but not an election victory,” said Dennis Shanahan, the political editor of The Australian newspaper. “Kevin Rudd’s return does not offer a real chance for an ALP win, but Labor MPs have finally decided to do what they can for the party to remain competitive federally in the years to come.”