A game of mutually assured destruction
The Kevin question is again consuming Labor. Will he or won’t he make a move to be prime minister again? Some MPs are convinced Kevin Rudd is the saviour to rescue the Government from annihilation in the September 14 election.
Others are just as certain he is a troublemaker and his regular public appearances steal the spotlight from the positive policies Julia Gillard is trying to sell.
Rudd repeatedly says he will not challenge the PM. And he says Gillard will lead Labor to the next election.
But just as the public doesn’t believe promises made by politicians, many MPs don’t believe Rudd has abandoned his desire to get his old job back.
A ginger group of MPs think he can become leader without breaking his promise in a two-step process. The first relies on opinion polls continuing to show Labor can’t win under Gillard and they hope MPs fearing defeat will decide Rudd is worth a punt.
Step two requires one or more of Gillard’s strongest supporters to switch camps. Some believe Rudd would only have “cover” if prominent Gillard backers sought to draft him.
Liberals have been stirring the pot, with deputy leader Julie Bishop this week predicting a challenge in March, and yesterday during question time Bishop and Victorian MP Kelly O’Dwyer gave Rudd chocolate roses for Valentine’s Day.
Of course, Rudd would have to be prepared to take on the leadership. Some believe the greatest twist in this saga might be that he would say no. “Why would he want to take the fall for an election we can’t win and rescue her (Gillard) from the blame?” says one MP.
But another says Rudd has an ego the size of Queensland, would be confident in his ability and would feel it was his duty to try to stop Tony Abbott becoming PM.
There is angst among Rudd backers about what to do next. Some want him to go quiet. There is a fine line between keeping a high profile and annoying the caucus members whose votes he needs.
This week Rudd urged police to step up investigation into video footage leaked a year ago of him swearing and losing his temper when he was PM.
And he directly blamed Wayne Swan and Gillard for the controversial mining tax not collecting “any real revenue of significance” - a comment some of his closest supporters said was “unhelpful” in the bigger quest as it was seen as firing shots.
Gillard supporters say this is evidence Rudd is up to something. They say he has undermined this week’s strategy to highlight industrial relations policy to have “modern workplaces for modern families”, with promises to give working women the ability to request greater flexibility, protection for work rosters and a pledge to make it cheaper and faster to tackle bullying.
Gillard’s backers are confident the PM retains majority support and say Labor would be subject to ridicule if it switched leaders again.
Rudd’s supporters admit he doesn’t have the numbers at the moment to win a ballot and want to avoid a repeat of last year where the Gillard camp spooked Rudd into making his move too early and he was thrashed 71-31.
They insist there is no number counting going on but say caucus members are deeply pessimistic and are shaking their heads in bewilderment about some of Gillard’s decisions.
Interestingly, there is frustration among Gillard supporters about the performance of the Treasurer. The recent Newspoll showing voters judged the Coalition better to handle the economy by a massive 50 to 28 per cent was a real blow.
“We’ve got low unemployment compared to the rest of the world, contained inflation and interest rates far lower than when John Howard was in office, but Swanny just can’t sell the economic message,” says a senior figure.
Instead, Labor made the test of its economic credibility the failed bid to return the Budget to surplus and the mining tax shambles.
Yesterday, Swan had a shocker. He was forced to issue a statement saying he had no plans to increase income tax after he clumsily left the door open in a radio interview, and in Question Time he wrongly said the national jobless rate was 5.1 per cent when it is 5.4.
Swan and Gillard joined forces to topple Rudd in June 2010 and the Treasurer is Gillard’s strongest supporter and protector. They rise and fall together.
If Rudd were to return to power, Chris Bowen or Greg Combet would be favourites to take Treasury. Some reckon Rudd would ask Bill Shorten as a peace offering to the Gillard camp and the unions.
Shorten remains solidly behind Gillard but is being closely watched by both sides. He played a key role in the removal of Rudd and is vital for her survival.
“He can’t knife two leaders and he knows it,” says one Gillard supporter, who argues that Shorten would destroy his own leadership ambitions if he moved against her.
Gillard’s loyalists warn if Rudd looks like he is going to make a move, they will launch a blitz bigger than that of last February, when Swan and other senior ministers accused him of sabotage and not having Labor values.
One loyalist said: “She won’t walk. He can’t beat her. But if this continues, we’re all going to lose.”
Gillard’s defenders say there would be a backlash from women if the first female PM was knifed by a man - despite the fact that’s how she came to power.
“She would go from culprit to victim. We’d lose any advantage on the gender vote if she is knifed.”
There is no bigger prize in politics. Gillard’s camp is making it clear it is ready for a fight. Team Rudd says only he can save Labor but time is running out.
Some Labor MPs believe a showdown is inevitable - but if it gets too messy the only winner will be Tony Abbott.
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