Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Ides of March dawn for Gillard

Kevin Rudd marches towards Labor leadership challenge
Kevin  Rudd is prepared to challenge Julia Gillard as prime minister next month, before the Queensland election and the federal budget parliamentary session.

The former Labor leader is readying for a strike at regaining the top job in the final March sitting of parliament as Labor MPs fall away from supporting the Prime Minister. Senior cabinet ministers expect a challenge during the Queensland election campaign, despite the potential damage to Anna Bligh's hopes of re-election and claims the Foreign Minister "doesn't have the numbers" or is afraid to "put up or shut up".

The rapid shift of support within the Labor parliamentary caucus in the past two sitting weeks has convinced Mr Rudd's supporters he has 40 of the 52 votes he requires to win a challenge. Gillard supporters estimate the Prime Minister has 45 votes, with the rest of the 103 Labor MPs and senators undecided. The latest episode of the Greek drama that is the Labor leadership appears set to be staged during the Ides of March.

But Rudd supporters believe many MPs counted as Ms Gillard's supporters are "soft" and could shift if there were another blunder by the Prime Minister's office or a ballot was called. In the past 72 hours, there have been claims Labor's influential NSW branch is "running dead" on the leadership, that the Left is demanding a bigger role for its rising star Greg Combet, possibly the deputy leadership, in return for its support, and that ministers have signalled to Mr Rudd's camp they would be prepared to work with him in cabinet."Kevin isn't about being vindictive, and apart from a couple of obvious changes - such as Wayne Swan - there wouldn't be wholesale change," a minister told The Weekend Australian yesterday.

A key Rudd supporter said: "After the Beazley leadership change, all the strongest opponents to the Rudd challenge were given top jobs in the ministry." In recent days, the Prime Minister has recognised the threat to her leadership, and ministers loyal to her, including Nicola Roxon and Craig Emerson, have sounded out MPs about their view on how the government is doing and to work out the numbers.

Some ministers who have been suggesting to MPs it would be "suicide" to return to Mr Rudd as prime minister just 20 months after he was dumped have been bluntly told "She's finished" and Labor has no chance with Ms Gillard as leader. NSW right-wing MPs have been told the influential state branch "supports the leader" but will not interfere or direct NSW MPs on their vote.

"Essentially, they're running dead and will not tell MPs how to vote," a source said. "The NSW Right has been a bloc vote." Ministers supporting Ms Gillard have argued that if Mr Rudd does not challenge before the end of next month, with the last sitting day of parliament being March 22, his campaign will stall during the six-week pre-budget break and give Ms Gillard a chance to improve her dire position in the polls. "If he doesn't go before the end of March, he'll be seen to have nothing," a senior minister told The Weekend Australian.

Other ministers said Mr Rudd was cowardly and would not challenge, and would be seen as a wrecker who was destroying Labor's chances. Ministers said Mr Rudd would be afraid to jeopardise his role as Foreign Minister, which he has enjoyed, by launching a leadership bid that failed.

But MPs backing Mr Rudd said he had showed determination and a willingness to take risks when he challenged Kim Beazley for the leadership in 2006, and any bid would seek to win outright. "The aim is not to go in and set up a close result for a second bid later on, but to win the first time," one minister said. "The idea of going to the backbench after a close result is only a fallback position."

Both Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd continued to parry questions about the leadership yesterday. At the launch of a charity campaign for Caritas in Brisbane, where schoolchildren were calling out for Mr Rudd to become prime minister again, he responded to leadership questions by saying: "Schoolkids are always nice, and they're well-mannered and they're friendly, as are the people of Queensland. "But in answer to your fundamental question, I'm very happy being the Foreign Minister of Australia, and as they say in the classics, I've got to zip."

At the opening of a training centre at a Catholic college in Canberra, Ms Gillard did not respond to questions about a Rudd challenge, but said: "Nothing is more important to me than just getting on with the job we need to do to give these kids the best possible future, and to give our nation the strongest possible economy for the future. "So when they graduate from here and whatever the rest of their education journey brings, they will be young adults in a prosperous economy where they can get an opportunity and get a chance."

MPs spoken to by The Weekend Australian expressed frustration at the government's performance at the end of another week of parliament in which Ms Gillard's leadership was under pressure. "The marginal seat-holders are being worn down," one MP said, expressing frustration that the government was unable to take advantage of an economy that had unemployment down to about 5 per cent. Instead, the government had been bogged down by job losses at Qantas and manufacturers, which were obscuring the benefits of the boom.
"We should be like Black Caviar - we should be streets ahead," one MP said.

Several MPs expressed frustration at the Prime Minister's performance. "All the injuries are self-inflicted," one said. Another said Mr Rudd's replacement by Ms Gillard was a "Greek tragedy - there were no winners".

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