Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is twice as popular with voters as incumbent Julia Gillard six months ahead of an election, according to an opinion poll that may stir more talk of a leadership challenge.
Asked who of the two was the preferred leader of the ruling Labor party, 62 percent of respondents said Rudd and 31 percent chose Gillard, according to the Nielsen poll published in Fairfax newspapers today. The same survey puts the government on course to lose the Sept. 14 ballot, with the Liberal-National coalition on 56 percent to Labor’s 44 percent on a two-party preferred basis.
Gillard’s minority government has trailed in opinion polls for almost two years and the Nielsen survey shows she lags opposition leader Tony Abbott on the question of preferred prime minister. As parliament enters its last sitting week before the May 14 federal budget, media speculation is mounting that Labor members will return the leadership to Rudd, who was ousted by Gillard in a June 2010 party coup.
“It’s a matter of survival for some of these guys” in the Labor party, said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. “The people who count now are those Labor MPs who hold seats on 5 percent to 10 percent. If they suddenly panic and think they’re going to be out of parliament if they don’t do something, then they could just as easily go for Rudd.”
Among solely Labor voters, support for Rudd is 51 percent to Gillard’s 48 percent, the poll shows. That’s narrowed from the 13 point lead he held over Gillard when he unsuccessfully challenged her for the leadership in February last year when he was serving as her foreign minister.
Rudd, who has repeatedly denied he intends to challenge Gillard again since his 2012 bid, joked about the issue in a speech last week and referred to the Ides of March, when Julius Caesar was assassinated by political rivals.
“Today is also the Ides of March, a day which commands the stark attention of anyone involved in the fratricide -- I mean the profession -- of politics,” Rudd said in an address in Brisbane also marking St. Patrick’s Day that was posted on YouTube. “It’s time to announce that I will challenge … any of the Liberal politicians to demonstrate that they have any more Irish blood than me.”
Among reasons cited by Gillard and her supporters for Rudd’s ouster in 2010 were his erratic decision-making, lack of communication and his desire to concentrate power away from his own ministers. Rudd said early last year that he’d learned the lessons from his time as prime minister and would try to delegate more and consult more widely.
Support for Australia's first female prime minister has waned after a series of policy back flips -- including on a tax on carbon emissions -- and scandals involving senior party members. A weakening manufacturing sector in some key Labor seats on the fringes of major cities has also seen her support dissipate.
Gillard told Fairfax newspapers in an interview published today that she wouldn’t yield to leadership speculation: “If I haven’t flinched yet, why would I flinch now?” she was cited as saying.
She also rejected the possibility of being asked to step down by senior ministers. “It just won’t happen. [It’s] much speculated upon and just won’t happen,” she said.
Voter enthusiasm for any Labor figure outside of Rudd and Gillard was subdued, the Nielsen poll showed, which may damp talk of a third-party challenger or for one of Gillard’s confidants to offer themselves as a middle-ground candidate: Employment Minister Bill Shorten was supported by 38 percent of respondents compared with 52 percent for Gillard; Climate Change Minister Greg Combet was backed by 35 percent to Gillard’s 53 percent; and Foreign Minister Bob Carr by 41 percent to 50 percent for the prime minister.
“Rudd’s the most popular person around, as is well known,” Economou said. “But his chances of becoming leader again depend on his caucus colleagues changing their attitude towards him.”
The Nielsen survey of 1,400 respondents was conducted March 14-16. No margin of error was given.
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