Photo: Gillard needs to lift her primary vote. She can't do that while Rudd continues to circle. (AAP: Alan Porritt)
The pressure must surely be building on Prime Minister Julia Gillard to call a party room ballot and try and stop in its tracks Kevin Rudd's undeclared run for the leadership.
But as every day goes by, the chances are he will build on that support. This week was a case in point. Julia Gillard had one of her worst weeks in politics because essentially trivial matters were badly handled. The damage was significant because it went to the most vulnerable aspects of her leadership – credibility and trust.
It is of no consequence that somebody in her office was preparing a speech in the event that she might win a leadership ballot. It would or should have been obvious to all those around her that that was at least a possibility and it would be prudent to start preparing for it. That she remembered little of it is also unsurprising. She would have been pre-occupied with issues like, should I challenge and will I have the numbers?
Equally unremarkable was the showing of polling unfavourable to Rudd to colleagues. Why wouldn't she? For days, she had been urged by key people to mount a challenge. Surely, armed with relevant material, she would seek to sound out colleagues.
For goodness sake. In the mid-90s, Liberals disenchanted with John Hewson's leadership, showed polling to Kerry O'Brien. And he was never a Liberal MP. All Gillard ever said was that she hadn't made up her mind to finally take the plunge until the day itself. There is nothing in the preparation of a speech or the showing off of polling that is inconsistent with that. But such straight forward and candid explanations were beyond the Prime Minister. By agreeing to a long pre-recorded interview with Four Corners, she allowed herself to be ambushed. She had no time to prepare. In the end she looked shifty and unconvincing.
Her colleagues were gobsmacked. It set back her cause. She can be thankful there is no mood for change across the broader caucus or in the state branches. No mood for change to Rudd, and no mood – yet – for a change to a third candidate, though all that may change if the issue is allowed to drift.
And that mood could start to change as early as next week. It's a non-sitting week and Kevin Rudd has a golden opportunity to declare: "I'm from Queensland, and I'm here to help," as he travels the state drawing crowds and seemingly doing all he can for Labor in the state election.
The speculation that is killing Gillard and the Government will go on no matter what. Nothing else is breaking through. Gillard needs to lift her primary vote. She can't do that while Rudd continues to circle. She needs to act, and sooner rather than later.
The Government is finished if it can't use the May budget and then the tax cuts and pension rises in June to start rebuilding its stocks. If the leadership issue is not dealt with before then, both the May and June exercises will be futile.
The alternative argument is that such a pre-emptive move would be interpreted in parts of the media as a recognition on Gillard's part that the challenge is real and her leadership is threatened. Well knock me down with a feather. Rudd is campaigning. Rudd is talking to journalists about the leadership despite his astonishing denial.
I know the names of some of those he has spoken to. I know where he said it – in his office – on a parliamentary sitting day – and I know what he said. He told them a challenge would happen; he told them he was prepared to lose the first ballot and go to the backbench; and in one conversation he laughed about the prospect of Gillard stumbling again.
Yet the Foreign Minister has categorically denied ever having spoken to any journalist about the leadership. He can deny the approaches only because he believes the journalists involved are bound to both protect their sources and to treat such conversations as confidential. He is protected by the cloak of journalistic ethics.
But when does this become as important or more so than the briefing former treasurer Peter Costello gave journalists at Canberra's Waters Edge Restaurant, on March 5, 2005?
Costello – according to one of the journalists present – the ABC's Michael Brissenden – told them over dinner that he had set a deadline of April the following year for John Howard to retire, or else he would destroy his leadership by launching a challenge.
He told them if the coup failed, he would move to the backbench to "carp" and build numbers for a second challenge. It is fascinating in retrospect to revisit what the journalists said at the time. Brissenden said the three journalists left the dinner with the understanding that the story could be reported as background.
But the next day they received frantic phone calls from Costello's staff pleading that the conversation be treated as off the record. They went along with that, but two years later, had a change of mind. They went on the record and outed Costello because they argued, "The strength of Mr Costello's denials today (April 14, 2007) go to matters of credibility for the man who still holds hopes of one day leading the nation." Indeed.
Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of ABC programs Insiders and Offsiders. View his full profile here.
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