Monday, 10 October 2011

Gillard and the inevitable | Will the two meet?

Rudd sharpens up for looming fight

111010 Bill Leak
Illustration: Bill Leak Source: The Australian

Last week, the Prime Minister, her challenger and some powerbrokers were quick to dismiss the so-called "chatter" inside Labor about who should lead the government to the next election.

But there should be no doubt: a leadership contest is about to get under way. Assessing the government's performance, one backbencher called it "a train wreck". They labelled Julia Gillard "a dismal failure" and said "not even Einstein could get us out of this mess". That's from a Gillard supporter.

Kevin Rudd is gearing up for a tilt at the leadership. He badly wants the prime ministership back. While many in the Labor caucus still dislike him personally, they are looking to Rudd for their electoral survival. Although a timetable is not settled, a leadership challenge is gaining momentum. As one minister said to me last week, "It's highly probable that there will be a leadership challenge."

All the telltale signs are evident that we are witnessing Rudd Redux. Rudd has been everywhere, just like he was through 2006, when he was stalking Kim Beazley for the party leadership. Rudd has been reading books to schoolchildren, blending award-winning teas, sleeping rough with the homeless and tweeting to his one million-plus followers. He's written articles on Aboriginal reconciliation, nuclear weapons, the G20, terrorism and global poverty. He's appeared on the 7pm Project, given lectures at universities and churches, and addressed the UN. And he's popping up in marginal seats all over Australia.

The latest crisis over the boy busted for drugs in Bali is manna from heaven: Rudd is at the helm of an international incident. He is a master media manipulator. Remember the "I'm a very happy little Vegemite being prime minister" comment? It reminded me of his comment about John Howard in 2007: "It will be fun to play with his mind". He's now messing with Gillard's mind. Even Rudd's daughter has a new novel with a plotline based around a government that is "imploding". "Rudd is running and is running hard," another minister concedes.

Not to be outdone, team Gillard is circling the wagons. Gillard's office is undermining Rudd to journalists, and stories about Rudd's exorbitant travel costs are part of the early skirmishing. But this will not be like other leadership challenges. This contest will be nasty, personal and fuelled by bitter hatred between rival camps. Similar to 1991, when Paul Keating waged a war to blast Bob Hawke from the leadership, it will tear the Labor Party apart.

Many in the Labor Left, especially in Victoria, are now with Rudd. Some in the Right are with Rudd too, but not enough to make a formal tilt for the leadership viable yet. Key powerbrokers are supporting Gillard. Yet, much of the caucus admits that the Gillard experiment has failed. The government's standing couldn't be lower and it faces diabolical policy challenges that it appears unable to resolve. It is impossible to think of anything that can save Gillard or her government.

Enter Rudd Redux. Although many have doubts about Rudd, they are "desperate" and "nervous" about losing their seats, says one backbencher, so they are looking at Rudd "to save their own skins". Others are worried about the "NSW disease" of regular leadership changes infecting Canberra and want Gillard to have more time to turn things around. Both sides say forget about a third candidate - this will be a Gillard-Rudd showdown. But a third candidate emerging at the last minute, like Mark Latham did when Beazley challenged Simon Crean in 2003, can't be ruled out.

The problem for Rudd is that few think he can solve any of the government's problems. "The polls showing Rudd winning an election are not real," a minister says, "they are a beauty contest. Rudd is doing popular things while Gillard is making the tough decisions." But the polls are too tantalising to ignore. They show that Rudd is far more popular than Gillard and could lift Labor's vote to a winning position if he is restored as leader.

But even if Rudd Redux succeeds, what next? First, several ministers are likely to resign, including treasurer Wayne Swan, causing chaos. What happens to Gillard? Rudd's relationship with both is poisonous. Second, what about the independents? Rudd may be able to dump Andrew Wilkie and his pokies reform and pick up Bob Katter to maintain a parliamentary majority, but that is a risky strategy. A Labor insider close to Gillard expects Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to switch their support to Tony Abbott to avoid an early election.

Third, if the ministry and the parliamentary majority collapses, Rudd could call an election. But it isn't that simple. The Senate has a fixed term and can't go to an election without a double dissolution trigger until 2013. That means a House election, if the Governor-General agreed, and a separate Senate election later. That hasn't happened since the 1970s.

Finally, the biggest problem for Rudd Redux is the policy failures: the carbon and mining taxes, the refugee policy mess and the pokies reform commitment. How on earth could he solve all of these problems? Which gets back to the reality now dawning on the caucus: there is no easy way out, nor a clear pathway to political survival. But like it or not, Rudd is coming. And so is Gillard's political execution.

Troy Bramston is the author of the forthcoming book, Looking for the Light on the Hill: Modern Labor's Challenges, and is a columnist with The Australian.

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