Monday, December 04, 2006

Labor changes the guard

Australia has a new leader of the Opposition. The 49 year old Queenslander Kevin Rudd replaces veteran ALP leader Kim Beazley after a party room spill called on Friday. This morning, Rudd beat Beazley in the caucus vote by 49-39. Julia Gillard, 45, is the new deputy leader, replacing Jenny Macklin who did not nominate for the position. Kevin Rudd is Labor’s fifth leader in five years. Queensland’s premier Peter Beattie congratulated Mr Rudd on his win. "What I think this will herald is a new period of stability for the party," he said.

Everyone in the Labor movement will echo Beattie’s hope as the party attempts to stop John Howard from winning a fifth successive election which is due in 2007. Howard himself acknowledged Rudd would fare well in the polls for a while on account of public curiosity about him as a new leader. But Howard immediately went on the attack noting that although Rudd had spoken about a new style of leadership, he (Howard) believed the Australian people wanted their politicians to be of substance rather than style.

Kevin Rudd was born in 1957 in the Queensland Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Eumundi. He was the youngest of four children. His father Bert was a share-farmer which meant he worked the land but didn't own it. In 1969 Bert died in a car accident and his mother Margaret was forced to leave the farm. Rudd spent two years as a boarder at Marist Brothers College in Brisbane before returning to Nambour High. There he got involved in theatre which helped his voice and improvisation skills. He became interested in politics at an early age and joined the ALP aged 16. Rudd studied Chinese language and history at the Australian National University in Canberra. After graduating with first-class honours he got married, joined the diplomatic service and was posted to Sweden.

Later, Rudd was posted to the Australian embassy in Beijing where he became a fluent Mandarin speaker. In 1988 with the long-term Queensland National Party government on the ropes, state Labor leader Wayne Goss asked Rudd to become his chief-of-staff. He stayed in the role for the first three years of Goss’s reign. Then Rudd switched tack to head up the Cabinet Office. There his hard-headed attitude earned the nickname Dr Death from bewildered subordinates. Finally he turned his attention to federal politics and was elected into parliament for the Southern Brisbane seat of Griffith in 1998 with a slim margin of 3.3%. In the two subsequent elections he turned it into a safe seat with an 8.8% margin. In 2001 he was named Opposition foreign affairs spokesman, a role he kept until today’s vote.

Rudd’s erstwhile leadership rival, Julia Gillard, will be his deputy. In many ways her career mirrors Rudd's. Gillard was born in the Welsh seaside town of Barry in 1961. Her family emigrated to South Australia five years later. She attended Adelaide University and then the University of Melbourne where she obtained arts and law degrees. She worked in a Werribee law firm specialising in industrial law and eventually rose to become partner in the law firm. After ten years, she quit to become Chief-of-Staff to Victorian Labor Leader, John Brumby. In 1998, she was elected for the safe Labor federal seat of Lalor in Melbourne’s western suburbs. In 2001 she was elected to shadow cabinet with the portfolio of Population and Immigration and two years later she was given the additional portfolios of Reconciliation and Indigenous Affairs. She was promoted to shadow health minister. Her own ambitions were revealed after Beazley regained the party leadership in 2005.

But today has been a bad day all round for Kim Beazley. Within minutes of losing the leadership, he found out that his younger brother David, 53, died. The cause of David Beazley’s death is not yet known and Kim refused to speak about it at a press conference. Instead, he praised his successor. "Kevin is a very able man, a very intelligent man with a very wide base of knowledge and [has] an absolute determination to do the right thing for the Australian people," he said. Beazley had been flagging in opinion polls and made a succession of gaffes which undermined his authority. In recent times he called the Bali drug runner Michelle Leslie “Michelle Lee”, mixed up the two Ian Macfarlanes and then offered his condolences to Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove on the death of the wife of Australian entertainer Rove McManus. The latter mistake proved fatal and the knives were out. Today the knives were sharpened. Beazley is now political history.

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