PM beware former foes dining in fancy restaurants
BY all accounts it was an extraordinary sight. Kevin Rudd was in flying form. As were his guests. Last Saturday night, while dining at Noosa’s trendy eatery, Bistro C, adoring patrons mobbed the foreign minister’s table.
They flattered and fawned over the local celebrity, who was born nearby in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. An obliging Rudd did his best to accommodate them, leaving his guests at the table to stand arm in arm for group shots with his fans. He was in his element.
But that wasn’t the most extraordinary of things. Few people noticed the other man sitting at the table with him. And why would they. The former Attorney General Robert McClelland, dumped only last month in Julia Gillard’s frontbench reshuffle, is hardly a household name in Queensland or a face that many would necessarily recognise. But there he was, the political cuckold, dining with Rudd and several members of their families, as if they were long time friends.
At least one canny observer said he appeared the part of a proud father looking on in excitement as Rudd played to his audience.
It’s hard to imagine a more profound Pauline Conversion than these two men and their families sharing an intimate time together, even if it was by co-incidence that they both happened to be holidaying at the same place at the same time.
When Rudd was PM, he barely spoke a word to McClelland. He made it clear to most that he didn’t think much of him. The feeling was reportedly mutual. Now that McClelland is on the outer with Julia Gillard, yet another senior member of the NSW Right and Rudd appear to have become new best friends.
And he isn’t the only one that Rudd has been courting, according to senior sources in the NSW Right. Some would like to think – and have even recently hypothesised - that with the passage of time the prospects of Rudd still being in the game to mount a challenge to Gillard have evaporated.
But to believe that Rudd’s desires and ambitions have been diminished would be not only to underestimate him, but to be living a fool’s paradise in terms of Labor’s current prospects.
Nothing could be further from reality.
Over summer, the former PM appears to have been, in the words of Commodus, a busy little bee. MPs will attest, privately, to the growing fondness Rudd has been showing them.
The speculation that the NSW Right is split down the middle in support for Rudd and Gillard has been growing since the reshuffle.
It is no surprise that McClelland has joined NSW colleague and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and others in entertaining the idea of a Rudd return. My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Both believe have been treated badly by Gillard, as do others in the Right.
Gillard’s supporters suggest they may have forgotten how Rudd treated them as well when he was PM.
In the least it starts to suggest that some Cabinet Ministers believe that Rudd is a possibility of retaking the leadership and want to hedge their bets to ensure they come down on the right side of a challenge.
One thing is becoming clear in the troubles that could beset the PM when parliament resumes in a few weeks.
Rudd has a strategy. What began as a backbench-led movement with disparate groups of MPs is evolving, with Rudd now prepared to pick off senior members of Gillard’s ministry to secure the political elite of the Government - unlike the spontaneous explosion of the entire caucus that led to his political execution.
The NSW right are probably half way there and the fact that Bowen and McClelland appear to be behind Rudd reveals the impotence of the former powerbroker and Gillard loyalist Mark Arbib’s influence to hold the NSW machine behind the PM.
But what happens this year could largely be decided in the coming weeks.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Government’s polling improves over Christmas, if for no other reason than the electorate’s temperament softens.
The first polling in February will be critical. It would be expected that there may be some bounce.
But the feedback MPs get from their electorates around the local functions they will all be attending over the Australia Day weekend will also dictate the direction of the backbench when they return to Canberra two weeks later.
Already some MPs are reporting back that the mood on the ground has not shifted at all. Gillard is still deeply unpopular and so is Labor.
The problem for Rudd is that there is no consensus among even his supporters about what to do, when and how to actually achieve a change. And there is still entrenched opposition to the idea of his return among many senior MPs.
But if February brings no significant improvement for the Government or Gillard, then the Ides of March may beckon for the PM.
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