LABOR ministers have publicly put a benign interpretation on Kevin Rudd's high-profile interview declaring he has a responsibility to get out and argue the case against Tony Abbott - although it is being generally seen as part of the former PM's campaign to try to reclaim his old job.
The Minister for Regional Australia, Simon Crean, one of Mr Rudd's strongest critics in the run-up to his February challenge, said: ''What he's demonstrated is that he's prepared to play in the team and we welcome that.
''What would you be saying if we banned backbenchers from doing TV interviews? I welcome what Kevin Rudd has had to say - the government and the party expects nothing less of him.''
Environment Minister Tony Burke, who has previously trenchantly attacked Mr Rudd, said he did not think he was actively seeking the leadership. ''I've seen no evidence at all that he is.''
Asked whether he could work with Mr Rudd if he were leader, Mr Burke said he had made ''some very strong comments earlier in the year - I don't resile from what I said but I don't see any point in continuing to trawl over that''. In February Mr Burke said Mr Rudd as PM had become increasingly impossible to work with, and if he became leader again ''I don't believe for a minute he would want me'' on his frontbench.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr, quizzed on whether he saw any leadership ambition in Mr Rudd's re-emergence, declared: ''Not remotely.''
When Communications Minister Minister Stephen Conroy was asked if Mr Rudd was making a move, he said: ''I think he's campaigning against Tony Abbott.''
Finance Minister Penny Wong said Mr Rudd was absolutely right to be lending his voice to criticism of the Coalition. ''People watch every move a little too much and tend to dramatise things.'' she said.
But Greens leader Christine Milne was blunt: ''It certainly appears as if he has never gone away actually in terms of his leadership aspirations. But he is going to fail in doing that because he doesn't have the support in the Labor Party, from what I can see.''
Meanwhile the government seized on an account by a Sydney barrister, David Patch, supporting the claim by a woman who defeated Tony Abbott in a 1977 student election about his intimidatory behaviour. Barbara Ramjan said he punched the wall on either side of her head. Mr Abbott at first said he could not remember any such incident but then insisted it had never happened.
ALP backbencher Deb O'Neill called on Mr Abbott to make a statement to Parliament about the incident.
Ms O'Neill said: ''I ask you, what sort of man can or cannot remember punching a wall beside the head of a woman?''
She said the incident went ''to the character of the man who is putting himself up as a future prime minister''.