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Julia Gillard takes helm in Australia after Kevin Rudd ouster

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Until a few months ago, Kevin Rudd was riding high as Australia’s most popular prime minister in three decades.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Until a few months ago, Kevin Rudd was riding high as Australia’s most popular prime minister in three decades. But today he fell victim to his government’s plunging poll ratings, ousted by his deputy, Julia Gillard, in the wake of policy backflips that threatened Labor’s fortunes at upcoming elections.

Rejected by his own party in favor of Ms. Gillard, who has been sworn in as the country’s first female prime minister, the once unassailable Mr. Rudd had no choice but to step aside. He had been warned by Labor powerbrokers and key trade unions that he no longer had their support.

Choking back tears, an uncharacteristically emotional Rudd told a media conference in Canberra: “I have given it my absolute best; I have given it my all.”

His election in 2007 ended 11 years of conservative government by John Howard, and Rudd enjoyed a remarkable political honeymoon. As recently as the start of this year, Labor still appeared invincible.

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But in recent months the government’s ratings have slumped, with voters disillusioned, in particular, by its shelving of a carbon-trading scheme. Recent polls have put Labor behind or barely neck-and-neck with the conservative opposition Coalition.

Rudd had called climate change “the greatest moral and economic challenge of our age,” and one political commentator described his retreat as “a breach of faith with the Australian people … an abandonment of values.”

Battle with mining companies
The government had also become embroiled in a long and damaging battle with mining companies over its plans to impose a 40 percent tax on their “super profits.” One of Gillard’s first acts yesterday was to offer an olive branch to the industry, pledging more consultation in an effort to reach prompt agreement. The tax has been seen by some voters as an assault on an industry vital to the Australian economy.

The speed and brutality with which Rudd was overthrown shocked even seasoned observers of the rough and tumble of Australian politics. Highly regarded, if not widely liked, he had presided over a strong economy which weathered the global turmoil better than any other developed country. He had led Labor out of the wilderness of opposition, and still had time to fight his way back up the polls.

Gillard, a former industrial lawyer whose family emigrated to Australia from Wales when she was 4, was reportedly reluctant to challenge Rudd until the last minute. She told a media conference today that she decided to do so “because I believed that a good government was losing its way.”

Strong political skills
The flame-haired Gillard entered parliament in 1998 and is widely liked and respected. A formidable political operator, she has been the subject of endless commentary: about her hairstyle, her fashion sense, her dislike of cooking and her unmarried, childless status. (She has a long-term partner.)

As well as ending divisions over the new mining tax, Gillard promised to resurrect the emissions-trading scheme, and to call an election “within months.” Analysts said that while she faces an uphill battle, particularly among Labor voters angry about the way Rudd was dumped, she has a better chance than him of winning the election.

Gary Morgan, who runs a polling organization, Roy Morgan Research, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “She will have a honeymoon and she will be in a very good position for the next election, particularly if she can get the support of her male electorate, which I’m sure she will.”

But the Coalition leader, Tony Abbott, declared: “They’ve changed the salesman, but they haven’t changed the product.”