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(Updates with comments from Gillard in fifth paragraph.)
Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he will challenge his successor Julia Gillard in a Feb. 27 leadership ballot as the ruling Labor party seeks to end weeks of rivalry that’s undermining the government.
“Julia has lost the trust of the Australian people,” Rudd, who quit as foreign minister earlier this week, told reporters today in Brisbane. “I want to finish the job the Australian people elected me to do.”
The vote comes 20 months after Gillard ousted Rudd from the nation’s top job in a party room coup amid complaints about his autocratic style. The victor faces the challenge of overcoming near-record low public support for the government, which is trailing opposition leader Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition ahead of elections due in 2013.
Rudd is “throwing the gauntlet down to people in the backbenches,” said John Wanna, a professor of public administration at the Canberra-based Australian National University. “He’s saying, ‘I can appeal to the Australian public better than she can.’ Caucus is making a judgment on who is the best bet to win the election next time round.”
Gillard told reporters the nation and her parliamentary colleagues face the choice of “who has got the character, the temperament and the strength to deliver on behalf of the Australian people.”
‘Celebrity Big Brother’
“This isn’t ‘Celebrity Big Brother,’” she said after Rudd announced he will contest the vote, referring to a reality television show where housemates try to avoid eviction. “It’s about who can lead the nation.”
Labor was 14 percentage points behind the opposition in a poll earlier this month, even amid falling unemployment and rising consumer confidence. At stake for the party after the contest is convincing voters its legislation to tax carbon emissions and mining profits -- opposed by business groups -- will pay off for the nation.
“As a party we also face serious challenges,” Rudd said. “If we’re honest with ourselves all indications are we’re heading for the rocks at the next election, leaving the country to the ravages of Mr. Abbott and the most conservative government, the most right-wing government, in prospect in Australia’s political history.”
Rudd told reporters he would not challenge Gillard a second time if he loses the ballot, and instead would serve as a lawmaker on the backbench.
The Australian dollar was unchanged immediately following Rudd’s announcement. The currency bought $1.0725 at 5 p.m. in Sydney from $1.0717 yesterday in New York. Australia’s benchmark 10-year bond yield was 4.09 percent, five basis points above yesterday’s close.
Rudd’s pitch to oust Gillard hinges on convincing Labor lawmakers that he’s popular enough with the Australian public to win an election, amid criticism from party colleagues about his leadership style.
Treasurer Wayne Swan condemned the former foreign minister this week as a man of “great weakness” who had demeaned his party colleagues during his 2007-2010 tenure as prime minister.
“This is not a question of personalities -- of who you like and dislike -- it’s a question of vision, of policy and trust and confidence,” Rudd said in Brisbane earlier today after flying home from meetings with government officials in the U.S.
He listed the “big” policy challenges facing Australia, such as encouraging small businesses to boost investment through tax reform and continuing government support for manufacturing including the nation’s car industry.
In a television interview broadcast Feb. 19 Rudd portrayed himself as a changed man who now recognizes the need to delegate authority and told reporters today he isn’t “captain perfect.”
“He’s been saying ‘I’m a new man,’ and doing mea culpas but people don’t believe it -- that’s why they booted him out in the first place,” said Stephen Bell, a professor at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, who was health minister under Rudd, told Sky News today that she “absolutely wouldn’t accept” an offer to work for him again if he won.
“I did witness quite a lot of very bad behavior to staff and to officials,” Roxon said in the interview. “I don’t think that’s a good way to run a government.” By contrast, she has never seen Gillard “lose her cool,” Roxon said.
Rudd needs the support of 52 of the 103 lawmakers in the Labor party to beat Gillard. As lawmakers began declaring their allegiances, the Australian newspaper tallied 66 in favor of the prime minister, with 31 for Rudd and six undecided.
“Regardless of who wins, it will be very hard to convince voters to trust and believe in the Labor brand,” said Andrew Hughes, who conducts research in political marketing at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Rudd’s pledge that he will not challenge the prime minister a second time may remove the risk for Gillard that history could repeat itself. Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating unseated Bob Hawke 20 years ago on his second attempt in six months.
Gillard pledged during a news conference in her hometown of Adelaide yesterday to “renounce any ambition” for leadership if she loses.
‘Lance the Boil’
A “decisive” win by the prime minister could “lance the boil and then Gillard can get back to her message of being a good reformer and legislator,” said Malcolm Mackerras, a political analyst at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra and author of books including “Australian Political Facts.” “Then the government might just get back on track and have a chance of winning the next election.”
Abbott, 54, told reporters today “he can’t believe the poison in the Australian Labor party.” The Liberal-Nationals have pledged to scrap the mining and climate-change measures. The mining tax has yet to become law, awaiting a vote in the Senate.
Rudd enjoyed record-high popularity early in his 31 months in office after defeating John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition government in November 2007.
Support for his leadership among voters surged to a record 73 percent after he garnered plaudits for offering the nation’s first apology to Aborigines for past injustices. His government helped steer Australia’s economy through the global financial crisis, boosting spending on schools and roads and distributing more than A$20 billion ($21.4 billion) in cash to households.
His popularity evaporated after he postponed the introduction of a carbon trading plan to limit climate change, a phenomenon he’d described as the “greatest moral and economic challenge of our time.”
Rudd said he supported putting a price on carbon and would “be working for the earliest possible transition to an emissions trading scheme and a floating price.”
Under a law coming into effect on July 1, the government will charge about 500 polluters A$23 a ton for discharges until the set price gives way to a cap-and-trade system in 2015.
“I think it’s important to look very carefully at how the implementation” goes in its first six months, Rudd said.
The leadership dispute “isn’t good for anyone,” Michael Fraser, managing director of Sydney-based electricity retailer AGL Energy Ltd., said in a phone interview today. “People elect politicians to get on with the job of governing Australia, and clearly that is being distracted by the goings-on in Canberra.”
AGL, a developer of renewable energy projects including the A$1 billion Macarthur wind farm in Victoria state, wouldn’t expect “any immediate impact as a consequence of a change in Labor leadership,” he said.
--With assistance from Angus Whitley in Sydney. Editors: Edward Johnson, Brendan Murray
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