Australian PM calls leadership ballot amidst slump in popularity

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The Independent Online

Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007 declaring climate change "the greatest moral and economic challenge of our age". But his shelving of a carbon trading scheme in April proved so unpopular with voters that his deputy and closest ally, Julia Gillard, has taken the dramatic step of challenging him for the leadership today.

With the Labor government scheduled to call an election this year, senior ministers have become alarmed by the party's drastic slide in the polls. The latest figures gave Labor the slimmest of leads over the opposition conservative coalition, indicating that Mr Rudd could become the first Australian prime minister since 1932 to be ousted after just one term.

In recent weeks Welsh-born Ms Gillard had laughed off repeated suggestions that she might challenge Mr Rudd for the Labor leadership. By yesterday she had been convinced otherwise by senior party figures, who had reportedly been plotting behind the scenes. Last night, at a hastily convened press conference, the prime minister announced that a ballot would be held.

Party sources suggested that Ms Gillard had enough support to topple Mr Rudd and become Australia's first female prime minister.

The rapid unfolding of the political crisis took even some ministers by surprise. Informed about the ballot on a late-night television current affairs programme, the Defence Minister, John Faulkner, replied: "It's... news to me." Just months ago, Mr Rudd was one of Australia's most popular prime ministers, and his party had an unassailable lead in the polls. His decision to postpone the introduction of an Emissions Trading Scheme started the rot. As one pundit observed last night: "That was a breach of faith with the Australian people. People saw it as an abandonment of values."

Voters were also disillusioned by a crackdown on asylum-seekers, reminiscent of the hard line adopted by Mr Rudd's right-wing predecessor, John Howard. Australia has suspended the processing of claims by would-be refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

In addition, the government's credibility has been damaged by a row over its plans to impose a "super profits tax" on the booming mining industry.

The conservative coalition, meanwhile, has been scoring political points – and gaining in the polls – under its new leader, Tony Abbott.

Mr Rudd, due to fly to Canada for a G20 summit later today, last night pledged to fight on. "I was elected to do a job," he said. "I intend to continue doing it to my utmost ability."