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Leadership soundings taken in treacherous political waters

Date

Nicholas Stuart

And so it begins again. Squabbling over leadership. Fighting over the spoils: victory, or defeat, it doesn't really matter. People are innately ambitious, and the ruthlessly self-centred types that become politicians (or opinion columnists) are perhaps the most personally obsessed of all. The current show's a double-bout specially selected for your edification and entertainment! Witness a battle for both Labor's past legacy and the future soul of the Liberal Party, and the next government's direction, at the same time. The first shots were fired last weekend, but there'll be many more skirmishes to come before the battle's resolved.

By the time we get to the election campaign itself the only issue likely to stimulate our political interest is likely to be the ultimate size of the Coalition majority. So let's use this (inevitable) premise as the starting point. The politicians know where the ship's heading so it's time to squabble over who'll be captain and how to avoid shoals. And that urgent question that all, personally ambitious, politicians ask: ''What's in it for me?'' Let's begin with Labor first. The government has so few options their calculations can be summarised with brevity.

No matter what they say publicly, not a single Labor MP genuinely believes Julia Gillard will be able to turn the polls around. Ever. The only questions remaining are (a) can she be persuaded to step down and (b) is there a replacement willing to put their head in the noose simply so they can appear in future textbooks as one of the country's shortest-serving prime ministers. Kevin Rudd's willing. How do we know? Well, take the feature-length interview with his wife Therese Rein in the paper last weekend? It was three-quarters of the way through the interview before the journalist asked a question about the possibility of a Rudd comeback, but that was the lead in the news story when it was published. Just as it was intended to be.

He'd love the personal vindication, of course, coupled with the ability to strut the national stage again, however briefly. It's all about his historical legacy. Rudd would seize the opportunity to re-define his period at the helm, sticking it to everyone from his own party who jumped on his grave when he was down. He'd sack Wayne Swan (whispering softly as he sinks the knife deep, ''sorry, mate, but it's for the good of the party''), Stephen Conroy (''incompetent'') and Nicola Roxon (''not up to the job''), preen his plumage with perfect promises, and rush to an election before anything else fell apart. When Labor lost he could quite accurately claim he didn't have enough time to turn public perceptions around and depart, his reputation exonerated.

This might be enough to save a couple of seats, but there are no guarantees. MPs still don't trust him. As well as that, there are enough people who still bear such a grudge there's always the chance the party could go backwards. If he challenged the party would rip itself apart before allowing him to become leader again. So if Rudd is scratched, who else might take over?

Nobody has the numbers unless Gillard hands over voluntarily. She certainly won't do this until at least September 14, the second anniversary of her swearing-in, but why would she anyway? The chalice of leadership is already poisoned. Why would leading the party into the wilderness appear attractive to anyone who had even a sliver of political competency?

Across the dispatch-box the complexion is very different. Whoever takes the Liberals to the next election will enjoy the prospect of a decade at the helm. They'll also choose who's first mate and who scrapes out the bilge for a long time to come. There's a lot at stake.

That's why Malcolm Turnbull's warning shot over the weekend - his article about gay marriage - takes on such significance. What made Turnbull's contribution so unusual, so very remarkable, is that it was about principle. Ideas. Policy. In other words, it's as direct a challenge for the leadership as can be manufactured without actually stating: ''Your personal-approval ratings are abysmal, nyah, nyah, nyah.''

Tony Abbott's has two problems - balanced by one, possibly overwhelming, advantage. The major difficulty he faces is his own personal brand of conservatism. This, coupled with his relentless negativity, has prevented him from offering alternatives that would be embraced optimistically by swinging voters. Turnbull's article addressed this directly. He is presenting the possibilities of a (small-l) Liberal policy path into the future. Pregnant within this option is the opportunity to garner the votes of the people who are currently hanging back: uncertain about Abbott's direction. They think he's sailing too close to the rocks and storms of a Howard-era past, a destination many hoped had been left behind. Turnbull's promising clear skies and a sunny, all-embracing future.

Abbott's second problem is instability among his current crew. He can't sack the underperformers because that would create enemies with vendettas. With numbers so finely balanced any trimming of the sails risks unbalancing the ship. Yet ironically, it's these very people who now make up his protective guard. They're sleeping around his cabin at night because they know that any change would see them - not all, but some - left to inhabit the fringe as castaways. Not everyone perhaps, but it takes the work of less than a moment to work out who'd be relegated to the far reaches of the backbench.

Trouble is, this is also a problem for Turnbull. Before he can plot a path back to the leadership he's got to hint at how he'd divide the spoils. Unfortunately, there's probably not enough treasure to interest some of the people he'd like for his lieutenants. They have their own ambitions to consider. For some, taking a step back under Abbott today may open up new prospects in the future. This is particularly so unless they can be convinced that Malcolm has ''changed'' and become a genuinely consultative leader.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer whose books include Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, What Goes Up: Behind the 2007 Election and Rudd's Way: November 2007. nicstuart.blogspot.com.

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