CANBERRA - The Australian Labor Party yesterday dumped leader Kim Beazley in a generational revolt designed to finally end the decade-long rule of Prime Minister John Howard.
In a day of double tragedy for Beazley - his younger brother David died yesterday - the Opposition elected Queenslander Kevin Rudd as its new leader, and fast-rising star Julia Gillard as his deputy.
On Thursday the party will form a new frontbench, shedding faces long associated with Beazley and the Labor elite that rose with the Government of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and opting for youth and vigour.
But the vote that has almost certainly ended the 26-year political career of Beazley, 58, is a huge gamble ahead of next year's federal election.
Former foreign affairs spokesman Rudd, 49, and shadow health minister Gillard, 45, are relatively inexperienced - both have been MPs for eight years - and will become targets for Howard's formidable political arsenal.
They will need to rebuild party unity and faith in Labor among voters who have grown weary of internal dissent that has seen five changes in leadership since it was toppled from power in 1996.
There is also the black memory of Mark Latham, who became leader in a similar coup against Beazley ahead of the last election but who led Labor to its worst defeat in decades.
But even among Beazley loyalists it had become apparent that the party had lost its way and faced defeat yet again under his leadership.
Beazley had previously been beaten twice by Howard and was given his third term as leader after Latham's angry downfall only because there was no one better at the time.
Polling had shown consistently that voters thought little of Beazley's leadership, rating him far below Howard and even others within Labor.
Rudd, an intelligent but colourless public performer, had earlier declined to challenge for the leadership.
But with a high profile from his stance on Iraq and other foreign crises, a soaring performance in the polls, and pressure from within the party, he decided to team with Gillard.
A Newspoll in the Australian yesterday showed twice as much support for a Rudd-Gillard leadership than for Beazley and his deputy, shadow education minister Jenny Macklin.
Macklin did not contest her position yesterday and Gillard was elected deputy leader unopposed.
Yesterday an AC Neilsen poll in the Sydney Morning Herald showed 36 per cent of voters preferred Rudd as Labor leader, with Beazley on 23 per cent.
The polls have also shown that despite his four previous victories and continued economic sunshine, Howard is vulnerable. Labor consistently places ahead of the Coalition Government in the two-party preferred vote that decides elections in Australia's system of preferential voting.
But there was concern at recent slippage in the party's primary vote, matched by yesterday's AC Neilsen poll showing that Rudd's leadership would push up the primary vote by seven points.
Rudd has promised a new dawn for Labor, with renewed focus on industrial relations, climate change, education and Australia's flagging manufacturing sector.
"Today the Labor Party elected a new leadership team with a new leadership style for Australia's future," he said after his 49-39 vote victory.
For Beazley, it was the end of a long and emotional road.
Calling for party unity under Rudd, he said he would not seek a post in the new shadow Cabinet.
In an emotional address, he paid tribute to Rudd - whom he said would be a magnificent leader - but broke down as he thanked his wife Susie and his family for their support.
"Family is everything," he said.
WORDS OF SUPPORT
Prime Minister John Howard:
"I won't say how sorry I am for him [Beazley] because he probably wouldn't appreciate that but I feel for him."
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke:
"It is well known that I was in favour of Kim Beazley retaining the Labor leadership. Now that the caucus has made its decision I will do everything in my power to support Kevin and his team in defeating John Howard and returning Labor to government - a result which this country desperately needs."
Greens Leader Bob Brown:
"Kevin Rudd brings a new excitement to ... politics and we hope he will bring a triumphant challenge to John Howard, who has been in office too long."