Is the Labor leadership issue a bizarre beat-up entirely confected by the news media? Certainly not. Is it an unstable and shifting situation, which may lead to a challenge, and which is notoriously difficult to report? Absolutely. Here are some of the dilemmas:
Is the Labor leadership issue a bizarre beat-up entirely confected by the news media? Certainly not.
Apparently contradictory things can be simultaneously true. The 103-strong caucus is divided into three camps - those backing Gillard, a growing group who used to back Gillard but who are now unsure what to do, and those backing Rudd. So when Gillard's supporters say Kevin Rudd doesn't have the numbers, that's technically right. And when Kevin Rudd's supporters say support has drifted away from Gillard over the summer, that's true too. Both sides claim more of the undecided camp than they definitely have, meaning when each says the other is inflating their numbers, that's spot-on as well.
Leadership fight ... Julia Gillard during a press conference at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
MPs can be telling the gospel truth when they say ''no one has called me'' because overt canvassing of individual votes only occurs when a challenge has been declared. Now is the time of how-are-things-going, what-are-your-concerns, read-between-the-lines conversations.
Most MPs publicly insist they support the leader until the second they cast a ballot for somebody else.
In every leadership ballot some MPs tell both candidates they will vote for them.
Most MPs prefer not to declare their hand until they are sure which way the ballot will go, lest they jump the wrong way, and will only discuss their views with journalists on a ''background'', that is, anonymous, basis.
It is in Rudd's interests to talk up momentum, to keep the chance of a challenge alive, but not too much, to avoid challenging before the March 24 Queensland election. It is in Gillard's interests to say nothing is happening, but also to talk up Rudd's ''destabilisation'' to cement antagonism against him.
Momentum is powerful. In the challenge against Rudd, some MPs who had been supporting the prime minister felt that the challenge had gone so far, so fast, that only a change could calm things down.
When the independents say ''all bets are off'' after a leadership change they are trying to head off the destabilisation, but it does not necessarily mean they would refuse to support a Rudd Government and trigger a general election in which most would lose their seats. They would probably want some commitments from the new leader.
All of this means it is a difficult situation for journalists, requiring caution, judgment and the testing of what is said by sources who won't be named. But it does not mean they are making it all up.
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