x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Australia's first female PM elected

Julia Gillard becomes Australia's first female prime minister after the ruling party ousted its leader Kevin Rudd in a sudden revolt.

The Australian prime minister Julia Gillard speaks during a press conference following the Labour leadship spill which saw Ms Gillard call a leadership ballot for the role of prime minister.
The Australian prime minister Julia Gillard speaks during a press conference following the Labour leadship spill which saw Ms Gillard call a leadership ballot for the role of prime minister.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA // Australia's ruling party ousted its leader today in a sudden revolt that also delivered the country its first female leader and stunned the public. Kevin Rudd's deputy, Julia Gillard, was elected leader in an uncontested vote about 12 hours after she surprised many colleagues by challenging a prime minister who until recently was one of the most popular in modern Australian history.

The removal of Mr Rudd - best known as one of the West's few Chinese-speaking leaders and for helping to broker the Copenhagen climate change agreement - showed his party had lost faith that he could win a second term at national elections due within months. The leadership change immediately eased hostilities between the government and big mining companies over a proposed tax on so-called super profits from burgeoning mineral and energy sales to China and India.

Today, Ms Gillard immediately ended an advertising campaign that is promoting the tax, keeping a Labour promise that Mr Rudd broke to never use taxpayers' money for political advertising. The world's biggest miner BHP-Billiton responded by suspending counter-advertising that claims the new tax would cost jobs and harm investment in the mineral sector, which is driving Australia's economic growth. Ms Gillard said her government is willing to negotiate with the miners on the proposed tax. Opinion polls show the tax debate is doing increasing harm to the government's re-election chances.

"I have said to the mining companies of this nation publicly that the government is opening its door and we are asking them to open their minds," Ms Gillard told parliament. Mr Rudd had ridden high in opinion polls until he made major policy reversals, including a decision in April to shelve plans to make Australia's worst polluters pay for their carbon gas emissions. An airplane towed a banner over Parliament House on Thursday, which made an apparent reference to this: "Julia aim higher on climate."

But Ms Gillard has not committed to pressing ahead with the government's so-called emission trading scheme in which polluters would buy and trade permits for every ton of carbon gas they produce. The Senate has twice rejected the legislation. She said that as prime minister she would seek a community consensus on how carbon pollution should be priced. An emotional Mr Rudd, flanked by his wife and three children, gave his final speech in the prime minister's courtyard at Parliament House today, saying he was proud that his first act in government in 2007 had been to ratify the Kyoto protocol for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"I'm proud of the fact that we tried three times to get an emissions trading scheme through this Parliament, although we failed," Mr Rudd said. "I'm less proud of the fact that I have now blubbered," he joked, as he struggled to contain his tears. He said he would contest the next election and continue to serve the government "in any manner in which I can be of assistance". Australia's first woman Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, swore Ms Gillard and her new deputy, Wayne Swan, into their offices on Thursday within hours of the ballot.

Mr Swan retains his key financial portfolio as treasurer and will to fly to Canada on Friday for a summit of Group of 20 major economies in Mr Rudd's place. He was also elected unopposed. Ms Gillard has yet to announce any other ministers in her new cabinet. Ms Gillard has been instrumental in most of the government's decisions to date as part of Mr Rudd's four-member inner circle that included Mr Swan and Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner. Mr Tanner announced on Thursday he was quitting politics at the next election for personal reasons.

John Wanna, an Australian National University political scientist, blamed Rudd's style and inability to clearly communicate for his plummeting popularity. "He's not been a bad prime minister, but he comes across as a smarty pants, policy wonk and when he does the human face stuff, he seems a bit disingenuous to the ordinary person," Mr Wanna said. Mr Wanna said dumping Rudd for Gillard - widely regarded as the best communicator in Parliament - months out from an election was risky for the government.

"We've got rid of a successful prime minister after two and a half years, and we've never done that before in the past," Mr Wanna said. Gillard was born in Barry, Wales, in 1961, the second daughter of a family who migrated to Adelaide when she was 4 years old in search of a warmer climate for a lung condition. A former successful lawyer and state government political staffer, she has been attacked by some opponents as unsuitable to lead because she is childless and therefore out of touch with most Australians.

Despite Australia's weathering the global downturn, recent polling puts the centre-left government neck-and-neck with the conservative opposition. One poll earlier this month showed Labour trailing the opposition for the first time in more than four years. Mr Rudd led the party to victory in the 2007 elections after 11 years in opposition. * AP