I was leaning on the counter of a well-known department store at 5.20pm last night when I became aware of Kevin Rudd’s face on about 50 television sets along one wall.
The strap with “Rudd Resigns” suddenly jumped out at me and I involuntarily blurted the news to the young salesman opposite.
His instant, unsolicited response?
“I hoped it was going to be her.”
And therein lies the dilemma that only the ALP’s wilfully blind will not concede.
Julia Gillard may treat the other 102 caucus members respectfully, as Wayne Swan claimed last night. She may smile at them and make them feel consulted. She may master her brief and get on well with the public servants in Canberra. She may navigate the hung parliament with skill.
But in the broader community she is electoral poison: disliked, distrusted and dismissed.
That is why Kevin Rudd is on a plane flying home to Australia today. He is the anti-Gillard. If she was any good, he wouldn’t even matter.
The Praetorian Guard that surrounds Gillard knows it. Their fear has been on display all week, particularly from ministers like Simon Crean. Ponder the significance of what he did on ABC radio on Monday. This senior minister, a former party leader, lashed the absent Rudd with relish, all the while professing loyalty to the “team”. Naturally, he denied any ambition for the title of “third candidate”. He kicked off a week of blaming Rudd for Gillard’s woes.
The fear and agitation was on display last night after Rudd’s dramatic middle-of-the-night resignation in Washington. As usual, Gillard’s courtiers could not help themselves, although the not-so-faceless men of June 2010 stayed out of sight and left the bomb throwing to others.
Tony Burke and Craig Emerson took to television interviews to lacerate Rudd. Burke pushed the image of Rudd as a micro-manager. Emerson’s usual cheery demeanour was tetchy as he claimed Rudd abandoned proper Cabinet processes. Neither sounded convincing and neither could explain why, if Rudd was such a bad prime minister, they had done nothing about it at the time. No resignations, no delegations, no protest, nothing. It remains the curious incident of the ministers in the Rudd government.
Burke and Emerson were outdone by Treasurer Wayne Swan. His vitriolic eight paragraph statement accused Rudd of self-interest, dysfunctional decision making, demeaning behaviour, selfishness, disloyalty, sabotage and undermining. Most savagely of all, it described Rudd as “somebody who does not hold any Labor values”.
If excess is the criterion, Swan’s effort is up there with Earle Page’s famous condemnation of Robert Menzies in 1939.
Read Kevin Rudd’s Washington statement and the contrast is clear. Rudd quite reasonably said he could not continue if he did not have the prime minister’s support. Her unwillingness to rein in or repudiate Simon Crean suggested Rudd’s future was in doubt. Until Rudd appeared on television, yesterday was awash with stories of Gillard’s plan to sack him ahead of next week’s caucus meeting.
What really upset Team Gillard, however, was Rudd’s carefully timed announcement. It was the middle of the night in Washington but just forty minutes before the nightly news broadcasts in Australia. Just as they were congratulating themselves on three days of blitzkrieg against Rudd, he regained the initiative.
Now he can campaign openly and on the grounds that the people who took him down in 2010 sold the caucus a pup. The nonsense of the last few days – showtime for the support acts – now gives way to the serious stuff.
Rudd is up against people with a lot to lose. All the key players from 2010 have been promoted by Gillard. Paradoxically, expectation of electoral defeat is likely to strengthen their resolve to withstand Rudd at all costs. Afterall, most of these people have gained power inside the ALP as big fish in an ever-dwindling pond.
With a bit of luck, the pious moralising and pomposity that was on display last night will vanish now that the contest is out in the open. For all the insider and media talk about whether Rudd has been briefing journalists – of course he has – and planning a comeback, it is unlikely the public will see him as the transgressor.
Last night, the attack was on in earnest to depict Rudd as acting against the national interest, damaging the economy, destabilising the Government and distracting from the job of implementing “good Labor policy”. It’s disingenuous in the extreme. Of course he wants his old job back. But he is only still in the frame because Gillard’s performance has been so poor.
Yes, we all know he’s a shameless publicist. Mobbed by school children, he was at it again the other day. The timing of his tweets is frequently unsubtle. This week he posted a seven second video on his Facebook page showing him shaking hands with Hillary Clinton – it subsequently made an appearance on every news bulletin. Whatever the self-promotion, he can teach his colleagues a thing or two about working the media.
By all accounts, around at least a third of the caucus is prepared to countenance his return. The reason is simple. Along with Malcolm Turnbull, another dumped leader, Rudd is one of the most popular politicians in the country.
Like a hanging, a leadership ballot surely concentrates the mind. For MPs, it is a two-fold question of what will save their seat and what will save the Government. Let’s not pretend it’s anything more or less than that. And here lies Rudd’s strength and Gillard’s fatal weakness.
Everything else is fluff. The only question for Labor MPs is this: do we march off the cliff with Gillard or do we roll the dice, elect Rudd, and save some seats?
Few people understand the way MPs have to think. They inhabit a political world that bears little resemblance to the domestic suburban routines most people know. The arithmetic of preselections and general elections is never far from mind. Threats are ever-present and nothing is ever certain.
Ask any MP at random what their electoral margin is and they will tell you the answer to two decimal places without even pausing to think. MPs can tell you exactly where their vote came from, its history over several elections and their best guess of what those people are thinking now. They know the political nuances town by town, suburb by suburb, and even street by street.
Forget the opinion polls. MPs with their feet on the ground can tell you the mood in the electorate. Experienced players know whether electoral hostility is entrenched or soft. They can draw comparisons with elections past. They will scoff at the naïve prognostications of the talking heads. They deal in events, personalities and issues rarely discussed in the public arena.
It’s easy to get caught by the hype of the committed and the vocal. Elections are closer than the controversy-driven media pretends. It’s very rare for a government to win with more than 55 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote. The Coalition has managed it twice in the post-war period, in 1966 and 1975. Most times, 52 or 53 per cent of the vote is enough for a handsome majority. In 2007, Kevin Rudd’s ALP polled 52.7 per cent and sailed into government with a 16-seat majority.
So not everyone will vote against Gillard. She is not a pariah. But all the published polls show she has been stuck around 43-46 per cent for most of the past year. The people who decide elections seem to have made up their minds. It defies belief and experience that any Labor MP in the land could believe that victory is within reach.
Forty-one Labor MPs hold their seats on margins less than 10 per cent. Twenty-five of them are under 6 per cent. These are the people who have to decide if defeat is inevitable and whether Rudd can make a difference. Their decision will be bound up in all manner of deals, jobs and factional balances. Talk of Labor values is myth-making for public consumption and the dwindling membership. Cold, hard assessments of survival will dominate.
And even if Rudd loses, the issue doesn’t go away.
As long as Gillard plumbs the depths of voter support, the issue doesn’t go away.
It is a modern Labor tragedy that it has come to this. The electorate will condemn them all for it.
Nevertheless, an opportunity has arrived. They can take it and dare last night’s bomb throwers to destroy the Government.
Or they can go on as they are, over the cliff.
This article was first published on The Drum.