Just two months ago, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was fighting with her back to the wall, fending off record low levels in opinion polls, a resurgent opposition and a leadership challenge within her own Labor Party.
Yesterday, her party gave her a rousing ovation at the start of a policymaking conference, underlining a remarkable turnaround in a matter of weeks.
The passage of important legislation, an increase in her slim parliamentary majority and well-received visits by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barack Obama have brought new hope of a revival that will carry through to the next election.
“I said 2011 would be a year of decision and delivery. I never said it wouldn’t be hard,” Gillard said to cheers from lawmakers, union representatives and Labor branch members.
Australian Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten, a former union leader, said there was an added “buzz” around the Labor conference, which is held once every three years, which would strengthen Gillard’s authority over the party.
“We will leave the prime minister’s position being enhanced over the three days,” Shorten said.
The mood was in stark contrast to October, when Gillard’s leadership was being openly questioned by party members, prompting speculation former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd might be drafted back to take over before the next election in late 2013.
Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, is ending a brutal political year on a high, with a stronger grip on power and her leadership secure after winning parliamentary backing for her two biggest policies — a carbon tax and a 30 percent tax on coal and iron ore miners.
At the same time, she has kept her fragile government together and extended her majority from one seat to three, albeit with outside support, after she lured a disgruntled conservative opposition lawmaker to become parliamentary speaker.
“The government is ending the year with momentum, although they are still in very serious trouble, but there is a big change in political dynamics,” Monash University political analyst Nick Economou said.
With the increased majority, -Gillard now has the flexibility to push through or drop gambling reform, the demand of an independent member of parliament who has threatened to withdraw support for the government if the poker machine laws do not change.
The 51-year-old took over as prime minister in June last year after a coup against Rudd, and then negotiated a minority government with support of the Greens and three independents after dead-heat national elections.
Her government has spent the past year in battle with some powerful and well-financed rivals.
The mining tax angered the nation’s biggest mining companies, while the carbon tax upset manufactures, coal miners and electricity generators. The planned gambling reforms have upset the gambling industry, sporting bodies and community clubs.
The government has also fought with Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media empire, which is the major domestic newspaper publisher, over political coverage and Gillard’s plans for a national high-speed broadband network.
Economou said the fact Gillard was an unmarried woman, with no children, who did not believe in God, also made it difficult for her to win over “family values” voters in the suburbs of Australia’s cities, who are the key to winning elections.