(CNSNews.com) – In a stunning collapse for a once-popular leader, an emotional Kevin Rudd resigned as prime minister of Australia on Thursday, after losing the support of party leaders who are anxious to avoid defeat in upcoming elections.
Following a leadership challenge mounted by his deputy, Julia Gillard, Rudd late Wednesday night announced that the center-left Australian Labor Party’s caucus of lawmakers would meet on Thursday to hold a vote. But at that meeting he chose to avoid the showdown ballot, and instead stood down as party leader and prime minister.
The gathered MPs and Senators then quickly elected Gillard, a politician from the party’s left-wing who becomes the country’s first woman prime minister. Wayne Swan, the Australian Treasurer and a Gillard loyalist, was elected as deputy prime minister.
The political coup came a day before Rudd had been due to fly to Canada for a Group of 20 leaders’ summit and a meeting with President Obama. Instead, Gillard will send Swan to the G20.
Gillard told a press conference she had challenged Rudd’s leadership “because I believed that a good government was losing its way.”
When Rudd brought Labor back to power in November 2007 after a decade in opposition, few would have predicted that he would not last a single term.
In that election, Labor easily defeated then-Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative Liberal Party-led coalition, and as recently as last October it was enjoying an 18-point opinion poll advantage.
But a series of policy controversies saw its lead steadily disappear, to the alarm of party leaders.
With elections expected within months, Rudd had been hoping to capitalize on a visit to Australia by Obama scheduled for early this month. But the White House canceled at the last minute – for the third time in four months – citing the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill.
The meeting with Obama the sidelines of the G20 summit in Toronto, announced by the White House at the same time as the trip cancellation, was seen as a consolation for Rudd. It will now not go ahead.
Obama and Rudd did meet at the Oval Office in March 2009 and again last November, with the looming climate change talks in Copenhagen topping the agenda.
Climate change was the issue that defined Rudd when running for election in 2007 – and one of the issues that led to his downfall.
His first official act on becoming prime minister was to set in motion Australian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol – Howard, like President Bush, had rejected the climate change treaty – and Rudd was hailed by green campaigners as a climate change hero.
But one year on, the same climate lobby was vilifying him, after his government announced targets for reducing “greenhouse gases” that were much lower than those the campaigners expected.
A proposed carbon emissions trading scheme was meant to enter into force in the middle of this year, but Rudd failed to get legislation through the Senate in December.
In April the government announced it was suspending the plan until 2013, citing failure to win bipartisan support at home and uncertainty about the climate policies being developed by major economies including the U.S. and China.
That move, a writer for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph commented Thursday, had amounted to Rudd’s “death warrant.”
“Having talked up the fight against global warming as the ‘greatest moral challenge’ of his time, the prime minister's decision to ditch his pledge provoked a massive and ultimately deadly fall in public approval.”
Another unpopular Rudd policy was a plan announced in May to introduce a 40 percent “super profits” tax on mining and other industries that extract non-renewable resources.
Mining industry figures, who have lobbied hard against the proposed tax, urged Gillard Thursday to scrap the plan, which is closely associated with her new deputy, Swan.
She gave no indication of doing so, but did cancel a controversial taxpayer-funded advertising campaign that sought to win public support for the tax, and said Swan would lead negotiations with the industry over the issue.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott responded to the change at the top by saying that Gillard was committed to “the same dud policies” as Rudd had been, including the “dangerous” resource tax.
“They’ve changed the salesman but they haven't changed the product,” he told reporters, saying if voters wanted a change in policies they would have to vote the opposition into power.
He congratulated Gillard on achieving “the highest – in this case non-elected – office in the land,” adding, “and it’s my job to make sure she is never elected by the Australian people.”
Rudd, a committed Christian with conservative social views, makes way for a politician who confesses no religious faith and is a member of Emily’s List, an organization with similar goals to its namesake in the United States – to elect “pro-choice women” to office.
Gillard’s past includes a leadership position in a left-wing organization, the Socialist Forum, which campaigned among other things for an end to Australia’s defense treaty with the U.S.
Christian commentator Bill Muehlenberg, of the Australian Family Council of Victoria, predicted that the new prime minister would move to the center for a while.
“Of course to win the election she will have to temporarily at least appear to be even more conservative than Rudd,” he said. “But if elected … then we can expect to see her roll out her more radical agendas.”
No date has yet been set for the election, which must be held by early next year.