Aus leadership change 'a gamble'

2010-06-24 11:00

Sydney - Australia's ruling Labour Party has taken a huge gamble by unseating the prime minister months before elections, but is banking on a boost in polls from new leader Julia Gillard, analysts say.

Former lawyer Gillard was installed as the country's first woman prime minister on Thursday in a bloodless plot hatched by right-wing party powerbrokers worried by predecessor Kevin Rudd's slump in opinion polls.

Once stratospherically popular, Rudd's profile dived in recent months after a series of policy missteps and a damaging fight with the high-profile mining industry over a proposed 40% tax on their profits.

But pundits joined the conservative opposition in warning that the unusual nature of Gillard's ascension painted Labour as a party in crisis, and would leave a stain on its re-election bid.

Lost confidence

"The first and major risk is not to do with her, but to do with the impact this has on perceptions of the Labour party," said Rodney Smith, an election expert from the University of Sydney.

"You've got a party that's clearly lost confidence in the direction that it's been pursuing, the leader that took them to the last election. That's got to raise serious questions about whether Labour should be elected next time around."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said the electorate would not be impressed by Rudd's "ugly assassination" by his own party, condemning it as the mafia-style thuggery of "factional warlords".

"A midnight knock on the door followed by political execution is no way for an Australian prime minister to be treated," Abbott told parliament.

Gillard good for Labour

John Warhurst, a political analyst with the Australian National University, said the switch to Gillard would be a positive for Labour and could prove a "circuit-breaker" on critical issues such as the mining tax.

"She'll have a freshness about her, she'll have a honeymoon period and that's probably going to be good," Warhurst told AFP.

"She's got the advantage of having been in the public eye for a long while as deputy prime minister, but she'll also have the advantage of a short sharp sprint to the (election) and I think that's a plus."

Gillard, once Abbott's weekly sparring partner on breakfast television, could also prove a more formidable foe than her predecessor, Warhurst added.

"There's the whole question of whether Gillard's... got Tony Abbott's measure in a way that's got him thrown, whether he'll have to change his style," he said.

Smith agreed that Gillard could "bring a new kind of dynamism" to government and, as a woman, attract a different demographic.

Bets on elections

But he warned that the extraordinary and merciless backroom coup, rare in Australian politics, would resonate "uncomfortably with parts of the electorate" and could prove fatal.

"(Labour) goes into the election with an untried leader against a now relatively confident opposition," Smith said.

"I think this is pure fear of electoral defeat driving this and I think it's mistaken," he said.

Betting agencies said almost $100 000 were wagered on the results of Australia's election, due as early as August, in the 10 minutes after Gillard took the leadership, with Labour as frontrunners to win.

"The betting witnessed over the past 24 hours is unprecedented and has been quite remarkable," said's Haydn Lane.

The most recent Newspoll, published on June 20, put dissatisfaction with Rudd at a record 55%, while Labour's primary vote was at a four-year low of 35% against the Liberal party's 40%.