Australian prime minister defends job against colleague she ousted

Feb. 27, 2012: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, center, with supporters for the caucus meeting walks through the parliament house in Canberra, Australia.

Feb. 27, 2012: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, center, with supporters for the caucus meeting walks through the parliament house in Canberra, Australia.  (AP)

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard won a resounding victory Monday against the party leader she deposed two years ago, Kevin Rudd, in a ballot of Labor Party lawmakers that she had ordered in hopes of putting down strife within her unpopular government.

Following his defeat by 71 votes to 31, Rudd called on his center-left Labor Party to unite behind Gillard. He had warned during his brief leadership campaign that she would lead Labor to certain defeat at elections next year.

"I bear no one any malice and if I've done wrong to anyone with what I've said and what I've done, I apologize," he told reporters.

Rudd said it was time the "wounds were healed" within the party.

Gillard won one of the most crushing victories in a major party leadership ballot of recent years after one of the most vicious public campaigns between rival camps of the same party ever seen in modern Australian politics.

She would have had an additional vote, but one of her supporters had recently given birth and was absent for the ballot.

Gillard called for the leadership ballot within her ruling party last week, soon after Rudd quit as foreign minister, to confirm her authority after simmering leadership tensions that have destabilized the government for months.

Opinion polls show Rudd to be significantly more popular than Gillard among voters, but many lawmakers were dissatisfied with Rudd's performance as prime minister, and there were concerns that Labor's fragile ruling coalition could crumble, forcing early elections, if Rudd were to take over.

A narrow victory could have left Gillard exposed to a second challenge if Labor continued to trail the conservative opposition coalition in opinion polls.

Supporters of both candidates had expected Rudd to gain around a third of the votes. Rudd had vowed that if he lost the ballot, he would remain in politics at least until elections due next year, but he said he would not challenge her leadership again.

Resource Minister Martin Ferguson said while Rudd would not challenge again, another challenger could come forward if Labor's fortunes do not improve.

Gillard was deputy prime minister two years ago when she made a snap challenge to Rudd's leadership. When Rudd discovered how few lawmakers were prepared to support him at the time, he did not contest the ballot and Gillard became prime minister without a vote.

With her leadership confirmed, Gillard must reshuffle her Cabinet to appoint a new foreign minister. Her Cabinet includes ministers who publicly endorsed Rudd.

A respected opinion poll published on Monday showed most respondents thought Rudd would make a better prime minister than would opposition leader Tony Abbott. Rudd's support stood at 53 percent, 34 percent chose Abbott and 13 percent were undecided.

Respondents were more evenly balanced on a choice between Gillard and Abbott, with Abbott leading 38 percent to 36.

The poll also found Labor trailed Abbott's conservative coalition 47 percent to 53.

The poll was based on an Australia-wide random telephone survey at the weekend of 1,152 voters. It has a 3 percentage point margin of error.