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Embattled Australian PM losing allies despite vote win

By Monica Attard for CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT)
A number of opinion polls suggest the Labor Party is unlikely to win the next election with Julia Gillard at the helm.
A number of opinion polls suggest the Labor Party is unlikely to win the next election with Julia Gillard at the helm.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • PM Julia Gillard was unopposed as a leadership content was held
  • Several members of her government resign 24 hours later
  • Gillard was expected to face a challenge from the man she ousted as PM
  • Kevin Rudd said the vote would have split an already unpopular ruling party

Editor's note: Monica Attard is a former journalist and Russia correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). She is an author and lawyer and has won multiple awards for her journalism.

Sydney, Australia (CNN) -- They may go down in Australian political history as misguided heroes.

After the challenge that wasn't, when Premier Julia Gillard threw open the leadership of her party, the Australian Labor Party and with it, the prime minister's job, there were always going to be losers.

But with five senior and three junior members of the prime minister's government having resigned their posts, her cabinet has lost decades of experience.

A day earlier, Gillard caved in to intense pressure and speculation over her leadership and called a vote of the parliamentary party.

READ: How leadership vote flopped

It was widely anticipated that her political nemesis, Kevin Rudd, would challenge her for the job. But he refused to do so. Gillard toppled Rudd as prime minister in 2010. Since then, the displeasure of Rudd and his supporters has severely destabilized the ALP.

Gillard survives 2012 challenge
Gillard & Rudd: Aussie power struggle
2012: Gillard won't quit

Unpopular within the party ranks, Rudd is hugely popular among ordinary Australians. Since his ousting, he has been consistently preferred as leader in opinion polls.

READ: Australian political plot misfires

But Australia's first female prime minister has now twice seen off a challenge, even if one did not even make it to a vote. The first in February, 2012 was an outright win against Rudd. Having promised last year he would not challenge, Rudd refused to stand against her saying he was sticking to his promise. He has since confirmed he was unable to garner enough support for a successful challenge.

Today, in a trademark third person reference on his personal website, Rudd called on his supporters to accept he would never again lead the Labor Party.

"Furthermore, Mr. Rudd wishes to make 100% clear to all members of the parliamentary Labor Party, including his own supporters, that there are no circumstances under which he will return to the Labor Party leadership in the future."

Gillard said Rudd's statement reflected reality.

Since the bizarre leadership ballot, those who supported Rudd have been resigning their parliamentary posts in a spectacle likely to worry even the tough minded, determined prime minister. Four of them are very high profile, experienced members who have long held ministerial positions.

Chris Bowen, the one time immigration minister and former tertiary education minister is amongst them. Like the former resources minister Martin Ferguson and former human services minister, Senator Kim Carr, both of whom have also resigned, Bowen had supported Rudd.

Simon Crean, the highly respected former ALP leader and former minister for the arts and regional Australia was sacked after calling on the prime minister to throw her job open.

Crean looked a forlorn figure on the parliamentary backbench yesterday, which he has not occupied in 22 years. Parliamentary secretary Richard Marles and two junior parliamentary whips, Janelle Saffin and Ed Husic are also gone.

All had expressed no confidence in the prime minister's ability to win the election slated for September 14.

I wouldn't cast it other than that. He should have done the right thing. There's a right way and a wrong way. He took the wrong way.
Simon Crean on Kevin Rudd

In the meantime, the man who they all supported says he will remain in the parliament. Crean has expressed his disappointment that Rudd failed to challenge, having opened the door for him.

"He had an obligation," said Crean.

"I wouldn't cast it other than that. He should have done the right thing. There's a right way and a wrong way. He took the wrong way," he said.

Meanwhile, Rudd emerged today to say that had he challenged, he would have split the Labor Party down the middle.

He praised those who had fallen on their swords, singling out Bowen as a possible future leader.

"We are judged by whether we honor our word and for me this is a matter of deep conscience.

"Its time for the ALP to unite under Prime Minister Gillard, totally. It is time for us to confront a significant threat to our nations future and interest and that is (opposition leader) Tony Abbott.

"For myself, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard has my 100% support," he said.

Senator Carr confirmed the numbers were very close but in the end, not there for a Rudd victory. Ten lawmakers expected to follow Crean and move to Rudd's side failed to do so.

Prime Minister Gillard appears safe now but far from strong. The next opinion poll is due to be released on Sunday.

She says she will turn her mind to a reshuffle of her cabinet in the coming days and will announce the new line up.

But opposition leader Abbott has already put the government on notice.

He has mooted another motion of no confidence, having narrowly lost the one he moved against the government when the prime minister threw open her party's leadership on Thursday.

"I'm impatient to give our country good government because that's what the public wants," Abbott told ABC radio.

"We are no closer to strong and stable government," he also told the Nine television network.

"The only way we can get to strong and stable government is to hold an election as soon as humanly possible," he said.

All eight of the lawmakers who have resigned will remain in the parliament and said they will fight to keep the Labor Party in power. They have also pledged to support Prime Minister Gillard.

But in his resignation speech, Senator Carr noted the government's chances of re-election in September were slim.

"You don't have to be a great scholar to appreciate we have great challenges ahead," he told Sky News.

Carr, a member of the party's governing national executive said he has long taken the view that "social democratic parties around the world are increasing moving to the arrangement of direct election of the leader by a range of people, by members of the parliament and by members of the party."

Both Crean and elder statesman Ferguson have implored the prime minister to return to traditional labor values.

The Prime Minister was criticized within her party over her claim that Australia's 457 visa regime which gives skilled, sponsored workers the right to live and work in the country for defined periods was taking jobs from Australians.

In the wash-up, the Gillard government is left with the mighty task of re-assembling a new cabinet, six months out of an election she is expected to lose, with the prospect of yet another no confidence motion.

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