Illustration: Pat Campbell
Everyone in Labor knows what needs to happen. Their difficulty is that the woman some have taken to calling the black queen - Julia Gillard - remains the most powerful player on the board. Getting to her in a political assassination attempt is impossible; no single person has the numbers to topple her. Kevin Rudd's comments last week were a simple confirmation that even he now realises he won't get them, either.
He's as powerless as the chessboard king. But that doesn't mean he's given up on the leadership. His strategy is simple. He is now depending on the pieces protecting Gillard to wake up to their own self-interest. Rudd simply has to point out that if the party goes to the next election with Gillard as PM and Swan as Treasurer it will be annihilated. He wants the numbers-brokers to walk in to Gillard's office and tell her she's got to go. The former PM insists he's the one person who could easily slip back into the job ('my job') and be seen as legitimate. He'll work incredibly hard, lose the election - anyone would - but then he'll walk happily (and this is the kicker) and hand over a party that's within striking distance of victory next time around. His supporters proclaim this would wipe away the stain of 'illegitimacy' that has stalked Gillard since she struck him down.
The problem with this scenario is that although Rudd has a few pawns around him, the nobility still have the power. Realistically, this means the focus quickly zeros in on the white knight, Bill Shorten. He's the only plausible alternative. Installing him, however, would mean he has to shove his way past the bishop (Wayne Swan) and, at the moment, the Treasurer doesn't want to go. Swan is still battling to understand what's happening and that he has become the weakest link.
This is all quite odd, really. When he was Queensland state secretary, Swan was very good at spelling out political reality to anyone who got in the way of the party's long-term interests. Today, however, it seems the Treasurer still doesn't appear to be ready to accept the fact that he personally is a significant cause of the party's inability to sell its economic message. But that's the truth. Just look at the statistics.
The stock market's up, the dollar is high, interest rates (comparatively) low and unemployment isn't too bad. Yet the minute Swan appears on television, investors feel nervous. When he opens his mouth to speak, the markets tremble. And when he acts, things quickly turn panicky, as if Swan had returned to his unfortunate habit of crushing glasses in ABC radio studios in response to a couple of simple, well formed questions.
The polls don't lie. There is no hard data yet, but one of the country's best pollsters says he's begun to pick up a hard edge in the qualitative responses that isn't being fully reflected (yet) in the quantitative results. There is no drift back to Labor. It seems the 'bounce' the government received over Christmas (a) wasn't real, and (b) was simply because people were seeing less of Gillard and Swan. But they don't accept this yet.
And so the chess game remains in stalemate. Every move to try and build up the party is countered by another blocking move from those in power. No one can advance. In the meantime, Tony Abbott creeps closer and closer to government until, when he finally walks into the Lodge, a great sigh of relief will be heard around the country. Not necessarily because voters want the Coalition, you understand, but simply because they are so sick and tired of the puerile, wretched and pathetic collection of such obviously self-interested people making up today's Cabinet. How, indeed, are they to be respected?
Take the Treasurer for example. You've got to wonder about the ability of someone who can't manage to sell a tax cut but then takes the opprobrium for introducing a new tax that raises no revenue. Getting rid of him should be simple, but this is where we pass back and deal with the chess game again. When a stalemate occurs, the game would be lost if a pawn changed sides.
Swan, extraordinarily, still possesses a block of those pawns and so unless he can be prevailed upon to shift ''for the good of the party'' nothing will happen. Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon recognised the extent of the coming disaster. That's why they scuttled quickly off the sinking ship; they want to secure their own personal future while they can. The only challenge the party faces is to decide what sort of shape it will be in after the coming election: that's what would-be leaders like Shorten need to concentrate on. If he doesn't occupy the Lodge this year, even if it's only for a matter of months, he never will. Currently, with Gillard leading and Swan as Treasurer, Labor will be booted so far into the outfield its remaining members will take on the appearance of a self-help group labelled ''Politicians Anonymous''.
This doesn't concern the self-interested cabal that's currently in charge of the party. Swan knows in his heart of hearts that the job is beyond him; that he's electoral poison - he just can't bring himself to admit it. Gillard knows the same thing and there is even a bizarre rumour that, if the polls don't change (and they won't) she's prepared to stand down at the last moment and let somebody else take the party to the election. That would deprive voters of the one thing they really want to do: kick the government.
If a change is going to be made to someone else it must happen now. Both Gillard and Swan need to swallow their pride and depart. In their hearts, they know this is the party's only hope. It's what Simon Crean did when his polling was abysmal. It seems the current leadership is made of other stuff.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.