‘Recycled’ Aussie PM gives party jolt of optimism

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Dubbed “Recycled Rudd” in newspaper headlines, Kevin Rudd returned as Australia’s prime minister Thursday, reviving his party’s hopes of avoiding an election massacre but giving voters few clues where he plans to take the country.

Rudd was sworn in a day after wrenching the job back from Julia Gillard, his former deputy, who took over through her own internal coup three years ago but had a strained relationship with Australian voters from the start.

He is seen as more charismatic than Gillard, though his abrasiveness toward his fellow lawmakers helped lead to his 2010 downfall. In Parliament on Thursday, he urged lawmakers to be “a little kinder and gentler” toward each other following Gillard’s ouster.

With Gillard as leader, the ruling center-left Labor Party had appeared headed for an overwhelming election defeat at the hands of the conservative coalition opposition, but Rudd’s supporters said they now have a chance to win.

“What this fundamentally does is put us in a position where we can win the next election, and no one would have been talking about that even at the beginning of this week,” said Richard Marles, a Rudd supporter who quit as a junior minister in March after an aborted leadership challenge by Rudd.

“We were looking at a very bad defeat. We were not in the contest,” he added.

Gillard had set elections for Sept. 14, though Rudd can now decide to hold them as early as Aug. 3. Rudd on Thursday refused to commit to a date but said “there’s not going to be a huge variation” from Sept. 14.

Rudd has said he will perform with renewed “energy and purpose,” but has yet to spell out what will be different under his leadership. His government remains in a state of confusion, with a Cabinet yet to be named.

Marles said he expects Rudd will “reset some policies” in the next two weeks, including on the unpopular carbon tax levied on Australia’s largest polluters and on how Australia deals with a growing number of asylum seekers reaching the country by boat.

“He’s the best communicator that exists in Australian politics today,” Marles said. “People just love him; they really relate to him and react to him and there is part of that I think is an intangible.”

Successive opinion polls have suggested that the government would be more popular with Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, at the helm than Gillard, a former lawyer and political staffer who was Australia’s first female prime minister.

A poll by market researcher Nielsen published last week in Fairfax Media newspapers found that Labor under Rudd would be on equal pegging with the opposition at 50 percent voter support. Under Gillard, Labor trailed with only 43 percent of voter support, compared to 57 percent support for the opposition.

The poll was based on a random nationwide telephone survey of 1,400 voters on June 13-15 and had a 2.6 percent margin of error.

Nielsen director John Stirton was skeptical that the poll would translate to an election victory for Labor, saying that would assume a smooth leadership transition to Rudd, the party uniting behind him and his public popularity enduring until the election.

Under Gillard, polls had suggested that Labor could lose between 30 and 35 of their 71 lawmakers in the 150-seat House of Representatives, where parties form government.

Rudd forced Gillard out in nearly the same way she ousted him in 2010. Each faced a party leadership vote in the face of a revolt from Labor lawmakers, but while Rudd did not contest Gillard’s earlier challenge, she went ahead with a vote that she lost 57-45.

Gillard tendered her resignation Wednesday night, and Governor-General Quentin Bryce commissioned Rudd as prime minister on Thursday.

Anthony Albanese was sworn in as deputy prime minister and Chris Bowen was sworn in as treasurer during the same ceremony. Rudd has yet to say when he will announce his complete Cabinet after seven ministers resigned following Gillard’s ouster.

Since it holds fewer than half of the seats in Parliament, the Labor Party has required support from independent lawmakers and the minor Greens party to hang on to power. Those lawmakers were not obliged to support Rudd, though at least some of them did.

The opposition could have challenged Rudd’s control of the government with a no-confidence motion, but it did not. Parliament was adjourned Thursday and it will not reconvene until after the elections.

The bitter rivalry and infighting between the Gillard and Rudd camps has damaged Labor’s image. Rudd had tried twice previously to oust Gillard, last year and in February. Many took the fact that he never posed for a Parliament House portrait, as other former prime ministers had done, as a sign that he never gave up on returning.

“As we all know in this place, political life is a very hard life; a very hard life indeed,” Rudd told Parliament before it adjourned. “Let us try — just try — to be a little kinder and gentler with each other in the further deliberations of this Parliament.”

Opposition leader Tony Abbott demanded an explanation from Rudd of why Gillard was deposed with elections looming. Abbott also called for an election date to be confirmed.

“Politics is a tough business and sometimes it is far more brutal than it needs to be,” Abbott said.

“This is a fraught moment in the life of our nation. A prime minister has been dragged down; her replacement owes the Australian people and the Australian Parliament an explanation,” he added.

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