Disunity within the Labor government helped conservative leader Tony Abbott rise to power in Saturday’s Australian elections, politicians and analysts said, with infighting and switching of leaders alienating voters.
Abbott’s Liberal/National coalition won the election decisively, but failed to inflict the thumping landslide which opinion polls had been predicting, with voters apparently still having some reservations about the London-born Sydneysider.
For the last six years Australians have enjoyed a growing economy thanks to a mining boom and enviably low unemployment despite the global financial crisis, yet the soap opera within Labor overshadowed this.
Outgoing Labor ministers were open about how divisions within the centre-left party — which twice switched leaders in their two terms in power before landing with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in June — had fuelled a distrust within the electorate.
“The division that we have seen has been disastrous,” admitted outgoing health minister Tanya Plibersek.
“The clear take-out from this definitely is that disunity is death and we are not disciplined enough,” she told the ABC.
“I don’t think the division or the pain was justified at any stage.”
Rudd was reappointed Labor’s “comeback kid” by party colleagues in June, three years after they had suddenly and brutally dumped him for Julia Gillard, claiming his government had been dysfunctional and chaotic.
Gillard became the nation’s first woman prime minister and took the country to an election which produced the first hung parliament in 70 years, but her campaign was undermined by leaks and policy missteps.
With an election due in 2013 and polls looking bleak for Labor, the party decided to again switch back to Rudd, a change which prompted the resignation of several senior figures including the treasurer and the ministers for education, climate change, trade and communications.
“As a major party you have to contain your internal division,” said Nick Economou, senior lecturer in politics at Melbourne’s Monash University.
“If you let them spill out then the voters will lose faith in you. Labor, of course, couldn’t contain it and voters lost faith with them.”
Economou said Australian voters expected majority government which meant that Gillard’s rule was always going to be in trouble from the start.
“I still think that Gillard overthrew Rudd and managed to hang on, she scraped through an election — that was bad but it was not fatal.
“I think the carbon tax decision was the fatal decision,” he said referring to Gillard’s decision to introduce a levy on carbon pollution after pledging during the election there would be “no carbon tax under a government I lead”.
Haydon Manning, associate professor of politics at Flinders University in South Australia, said he saw the election as “a two-staged defeat of the Labor government”.
“It began last time and led to the hung parliament. It’s now been completed,” he said.
Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie, who Rudd had drafted into the campaign, said the perception of Labour ahead of the vote was “instability for leadership”.
“And I think during the campaign that was emphasised by the stability of Tony Abbott’s campaign,” Beattie told the Seven Network.
“The Labor Party have to be honest about this, and face the reality head on, that was the key issue. We all know that disunity is the death in politics. What Tony Abbott did is put up a unified team.
“The cumulative effect of the six years… has played into the spirit of ‘it’s time for change’.”
Labor heavyweight and former prime minister Bob Hawke said it was a disappointing defeat, but also admitted that “a party that can’t govern itself can’t govern the country”.
Labor frontbencher Jason Clare said people were sick of the “dance of death between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd”, and Rudd’s decision to stand down as Labor leader was widely welcomed.
“My view is it’s time for generational change,” Clare told the Ten Network.
“We need to put the Rudd and the Gillard era behind us.” AFP