It's not that uncommon in parliamentary politics to have a party leader replaced. In fact, Australia's Liberal Party has replaced its leader four times in the last three years.
Far less common is the replacement of a prime minister in this way. In a remarkable turns of events today, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stepped down, rather than face losing a party vote between himself and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party and government.
Gillard is the first female prime minister in Australia's history -- "also I think the first red head", she has quipped to the press.
And yet what makes this story truly remarkable right now is the fact that Kevin Rudd was, until the last 6 months, close to the most positively-viewed Prime Minister in the country's history. Under his leadership Australia was the only major Western country to avoid recession. He was a leader on the world stage in the call for stronger international climate change agreements. He enacted new protections for workers and for refugees, and worked for a greater international relationship among the countries of Asia. He was in fact the first Australian Prime Minister who spoke Mandarin Chinese.
In his very first act as Prime Minister he offered a public apology to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia for its history of prejudice, child abduction and violence. And within six months of coming into office he held a national symposium in which people from all walks of life were invited to the nation's capitol to give input and offer ideas on the issues and future of the country. Coming after John Howard, whose 14-year Liberal government had built a tremendous economic surplus while whittling away protections for workers, adopting at times xenophobic stances towards refugees, largely dismissing climate change, and refusing to offer an apology to Aboriginal peoples, Rudd was a breath of fresh air, creating a sense of new possibilities, openness and hope.
And yet, somewhere between January and today, the wheels came off. A home insulation plan that had been developed by the government to build jobs during the economic downturn proved to be poorly managed and resulted in the deaths of a number of workers. As in the United States, a long fight for better health care succeeded, but the previously steely shrewd Rudd appeared shrill and tyrannical in his public dealings with state leaders on the matter.
And at some point his administration kicked into a strange hyperdrive, presenting one dramatically new and complicated policy decision after another without sufficient consultation or groundwork. Many of these decisions, including a sudden swing to the right in rhetoric and policy on refugees, a tossing aside of climate change legislation, and a move for the government to take a 40% share in the nation's mines -- an enormous source of income, seemed hysterical, random and disconnected from both the party's base and the national sentiments. In the end it became hard to know what his government was going to do next, and how its decisions fit with the open-minded, caring, collaborative vision they had promised 3 years ago.
As deputy leader Gillard's main portfolio was education, which has also faced some difficult financial management questions in the last year. She was considered one of a "gang of four" with whom Rudd consulted on policy issues. She has promised a far more collaborative approach than the notoriously controlling and hard-charging Rudd, and she has opted not to move into the prime ministerial residence, known as the Lodge, until Australians have an opportunity to formally assent or dissent to her leadership in the national election, to be held sometime later this year.
Her election marks a landmark moment in the country's history. Whether she can distance herself enough from Rudd's policies and behavior to turn this into something more historic than a moment remains to be seen.
Jim McDermott, SJ