SYDNEY // After a political ambush, Australia has a female prime minister for the first time. Welsh-born Julia Gillard has replaced the fallen leader Kevin Rudd, who has been punished by his colleagues for a sharp fall in public support with a general election just a few months away.
Ms Gillard, 48, was Rudd's deputy in the left-of-centre government until he was ousted by party heavyweights who saw him as an electoral liability because of indecision over climate change and the mishandling of a controversial mining tax. The new prime minister, an uncompromising lawyer and feminist trailblazer, has fought her way through the male-dominated ranks of the governing Labor Party and defended her decision to take on the top job because she felt "a good government was losing its way".
"I did also form the view that the best way of making sure that this government was back on track, providing to the Australian people the leadership they deserved ... was to take the course that I took last night and this morning," Ms Gillard said. "I love this country and I was not going to sit idly by and watch an incoming opposition cut education, cut health and smash rights at work. My values and my beliefs have driven me to step forward to take this position as prime minister," she added during a televised address.
Ms Gillard inherits an administration that has been spooked by a resurgence in the conservative opposition, led by Tony Abbott, a committed Catholic and monarchist, who has flagged a return to more hard-line policies on immigration, including sending asylum seekers to camps in neighbouring countries, should his right-wing coalition win power. Ms Gillard's task is to reassure a jittery party that a fall in public confidence can be quickly reversed.
Support for her predecessor began to wane when Mr Rudd scrapped the centrepiece of his environmental policy, an emissions trading system, earlier this year. The decision led to accusations of political weakness and many voters started to wonder exactly what Mr Rudd stood for, while plans for a contentious resources levy heaped further pressure on his government. Despite mounting problems, Mr Rudd's demise was swift and unexpected.
Rodney Smith, a political scientist at the University of Sydney, said: "I don't think there has been anything like this in Australian politics for many decades. "This has been a huge gamble to install a new leader so close to an election. I'm not sure that there was any need for such desperation. The polls weren't so terrible. Labor was in with a very good chance of winning the next election, so it is a slightly puzzling move," Mr Smith said.
With time so short before the nation goes to the polls, the new Gillard administration is not expected to introduce widespread policy shifts, although some analysts believe she might push for an early exit for Australia's 1,550 troops fighting in Afghanistan. Prof John Wanna from the Australian National University, said: "She may want to signal that Australia withdraws from Afghanistan because Labor's been beset by a drift of votes to the left. Prof Wanna said Ms Gillard would be "less obsessed" with foreign policy than Mr Rudd.
The defence minister, John Faulkner, said earlier this week that Canberra could start bringing the troops home within "a two to four-year timeframe" if their mission to train local soldiers continued as planned, while public support in Australia for a distant and increasingly bloody conflict in Afghanistan appears to be waning. Last weekend three Australian commandos were killed in a helicopter crash, bringing the nation's number of fatalities in the Afghan campaign to 16 - the most casualties suffered by the country since the Vietnam war.
Anti-war campaigners have delivered a blunt message to the new prime minister. Ewen Saunders, a Socialist Alliance candidate for the federal seat of Brisbane in Queensland, said: "This is an unwinnable war and it is an absolute quagmire that the US and Australia can have no hope of getting out of other than withdrawing troops. "There are shades of Vietnam here. There is still a whole generation or two in this country who remember Vietnam and how long it took for our leaders to figure out what a futile and unjust war it was. There is talk on the streets that Afghanistan could be the next Vietnam."