Australia's Rudd challenges PM for leadership

February 24, 2012 - 5:55 AM
Australia Politics

Former Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, left, speaks to the media, with his wife Therese Rein, right, during a press conference after his arrival at the airport in Brisbane, Australia, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. Prime Minister Julia Gillard put her job on the line Thursday, announcing a leadership ballot in hopes of quashing a comeback by Rudd, the colleague she ousted in a Labor Party coup nearly two years ago. The vote by party lawmakers, scheduled for Monday, is an effort by Gillard to knock down a power struggle that has been percolating for weeks, and that spilled over onto the world stage Wednesday when Rudd resigned as foreign minister during an official trip to the U.S. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia's former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced he will try to grab back leadership of the country in a ruling party ballot Monday, challenging the current prime minister in a bitter and long-brewing power struggle.

Rudd's pronouncement Friday that he would go against Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the vote followed weeks of denials that he wanted to return to the top job. Gillard ousted Rudd as prime minister in June 2010 in an internal party coup, and their center-left Labor Party scraped through elections later that year to lead a minority government.

"It's no secret that our government has a lot of work to do if it is to regain the confidence of the Australian people," Rudd said during a speech in the eastern city of Brisbane. "Starting on Monday, I'm going to start restoring that trust."

"I want to finish the job the Australian people elected me to do when I was elected by them to become prime minister," he said Friday.

Rudd resigned as foreign minister during a trip to the U.S. earlier this week, saying he could not continue in his role without the support of the prime minister. Gillard then announced a party leadership election Monday to try to firm up her position.

The government could fall if Rudd wins because Labor's single-seat majority in the House of Representatives depends on a coalition with two independent lawmakers and one from the Greens Party. Early elections would be held if neither Labor nor the conservative opposition coalition can muster a majority.

Gillard later attacked Rudd on the issue of trust, noting that Rudd has refused to deny accusations that he actively worked behind the scenes to undermine and destabilize her government.

"The choice that the nation faces and my parliamentary colleagues face on Monday is a choice as to who has got the character, the temperament, the strength to deliver on behalf of the Australian people," Gillard told reporters.

"This isn't 'Celebrity Big Brother'; it's about working out who can lead the nation, who has got the ability to get things done," she added, referring to a reality TV show in which housemates are voted off.

Gillard said Rudd's colleagues turned on him in 2010 because his government was in a "chaotic" and "paralyzed" state.

She said she expected to win "very strong support" among her 103 colleagues in Monday's ballot and lead Labor to victory at elections next year.

Gillard has said she will abandon her leadership ambitions if Labor lawmakers choose Rudd over her, and she called on Rudd to do the same if he loses.

Analysts expect that Gillard has enough support to remain in power for now, but she and her government are unpopular among voters.

Rudd supporters have said that even if he lost Monday, he would simply build support and try again later. But in his speech Friday, Rudd dismissed the idea of mounting another challenge if this one fails.

"I would go to the backbench and I would not challenge Julia a second time," he said.

For weeks, Rudd denied widespread rumors that he was planning a run for Gillard's job. Before Rudd announced his resignation, Gillard had refused to comment on media reports that she intended to fire him as foreign minister for disloyalty.

Rudd accused Gillard of showing disloyalty to him by failing to silence senior ministers who accused him of being dysfunctional and of secretly undermining the Australian government while he served as its top international envoy.

In his speech Friday, Rudd said the Labor Party under its current leader was headed for a devastating defeat at the next elections, and said Gillard had lost the trust of Australians.

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Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.