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Rudd plays down leadership

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd says he supports the Prime Minister and will be out selling the achievements of the government.

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Kevin Rudd has scoffed at reports that he is within striking distance of toppling Julia Gillard for the federal Labor leadership.

''Give us a break, give us a break,'' he told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday outside the church of St Andrews at a service to mark the start of the parliamentary year, when asked whether his backers were counting the numbers.

Kevin Rudd outside the Church of St Andrew for a service mark the start of the 2013 Parliamentary year.

Kevin Rudd outside the Church of St Andrew for a service mark the start of the 2013 Parliamentary year. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Rudd was responding to reports that support for the former prime minister could be as high as 45 votes out of 102 caucus members.

Ms Gillard's supporters say it is lower.

Mr Rudd insisted his position was unchanged from 12 months ago, after he comprehensively lost a leadership ballot 31 votes to 71.

''I supported the prime minister . . . that remains my position,'' he said.

''Everyone should take a long, cold shower.''

Mr Rudd told reporters the election year was ''going to be tough''.

''Our core challenge is to do whatever we can to make sure Mr Abbott doesn't become prime minister and that's my mission in life,'' he said.

Mr Rudd said his first priority was looking after his south Brisbane electorate of Griffith ''and that's where I'll be spending a whole lot of time''.

''Secondly, as I have done consistently over many years now in whatever capacity I've held, I'll be working for Labor members, Labor candidates right across the country; I have about a dozen of those commitments lined up already before the hoopla of the last couple of days, and that'll just continue.

''And finally my job is to go out there and talk about this government's record of achievement in keeping the economy strong when the rest of the world economy fell into a heap.''

Ms Gillard's reduced support, confirmed to Fairfax Media by multiple sources from both sides of the caucus, raises the possibility of a second leadership challenge by Mr Rudd, although his supporters say no move is imminent.

The estimate of 45 votes for Mr Rudd is regarded as ''not unrealistic'' by a key Gillard backer, who put it ''closer to 40''.

Labor's rocky start

The shift in sentiment follows Labor's trouble-plagued start to the election year, which has shaken MPs and fuelled perceptions of disorder.

Adding to Ms Gillard's discomfort, two of her most senior ministers on Monday said Mr Rudd was an electoral asset.

''I think he is an asset and we should use him, but it has to be a disciplined asset,'' said Arts and Regional Development Minister Simon Crean.

Mr Crean was one of Mr Rudd's harshest critics last year but believes the party would benefit from his popularity.

Ms Gillard's chief parliamentary tactician, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, also called for Mr Rudd to be returned to the fold.

''Kevin Rudd is an asset to the Australian Labor Party,'' he told Sky News. ''We need to engage Kevin Rudd and use him wherever possible. He's a very popular figure, there's no doubt about that.''

With her leadership now facing greater scrutiny, Ms Gillard on Monday pleaded for loyalty.

At the first ALP caucus meeting for the year, she blamed internal disloyalty for some of Labor's problems, revealing that journalists had told her that MPs had been waiting for the return from holidays to complain about her leadership.

One caucus member, however, said Ms Gillard ''needed to look closer to home''. The MP said Ms Gillard had enjoyed the backing of most MPs during 2012, but this support had noticeably weakened on the back of ''a terrible start'' to the election year.

''We needed to make every post a winner in order to catch the Coalition by polling day, but it hasn't gone to script so far, not at all,'' the MP said.

A series of self-inflicted political wounds has sapped morale and reignited talk about whether anything would be achieved by another leadership change.

These blows include the clumsily handled dumping of Northern Territory senator Trish Crossin and the timing of the election announcement, which was followed closely by the resignations of two senior ministers.

Rudd's profile

In the immediate aftermath of the last challenge, Ms Gillard's backers believed her two-to-one margin would be sufficient to end the Rudd threat.

However, the former foreign minister has not only remained in politics but has recently begun to ramp up his public profile.

Last week he returned to the the Seven Network's Sunrise program, appearing with the opposition's Joe Hockey. That pairing reprised his regular appearances on the high-rating show that helped to make him a household name in 2006 - a key factor in his rise to the Labor leadership that year.

Voter support for the government, which had been slowly recovering throughout the second half of 2012, has tanked again, according to two separate polls published in News Limited papers.

Abbott's rise

Labor MPs are particularly concerned about the decline in Ms Gillard's personal standing compared with that of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

According to Newspoll, Ms Gillard's standing as preferred prime minister has deteriorated by 4 points to 41 per cent, while Mr Abbott's has climbed by 6 points to 39 per cent in the two weeks since the previous poll.

The poll also showed that the number of people satisfied with her performance has dropped, while the number of those dissatisfied has risen. The opposite was the case for Mr Abbott.

The Opposition Leader used a pep talk to his frontbench yesterday to presage a more positive approach to combat Labor's branding of him as ''Dr No''.

''People expected us . . . to hold the government to account, and we certainly did that, but I think what people are now looking for is for a little bit more from us,'' he told them.

''They want us not so much to be an opposition but to be an alternative government ... and that is exactly what you've been getting over the last few weeks.''

On the leadership speculation, Mr Abbott said on Tuesday that Australians expected a strong and stable government.

''Sadly that's not the perception right now in Canberra,'' he told reporters, saying Labor should focus on the public not on its ''internal shenanigans''.

Caretaker row

Meanwhile, new Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has hit out at Coalition claims that the government is now in ''virtual caretaker-mode''.

''The parliament is sitting today . . . the bells are ringing, question time is about to begin'' he said, pointing to the long-standing convention that the caretaker period does not start until the House of Representatives had been dissolved.

On Tuesday morning, deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop told ABC Radio: ''We believe that the government has made this call, we are in virtual caretaker-mode.''

Ms Bishop also said that she understood that parties now needed to have equal access to broadcasting time.

This also follows a Coalition attempt to freeze the $10 billion in a government climate change fund before the September election.

The opposition's finance spokesman, Andrew Robb, and its climate action spokesman, Greg Hunt, have written to directors of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation warning them not to enter into any funding contracts.

Ms Bishop told a Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday not to assume that the September 14 election date was fixed, adding it could be earlier.

The Deputy Opposition Leader told her colleagues that anything could happen under the current government.
She said that Coalition MPs also should not assume that Ms Gillard would be the leader and that Mr Rudd had ''one more tilt" left in him.

Mr Abbott cautioned against hubris in the election year, telling the party room they should be "confident and optimistic but never arrogant".

with AAP and Daniel Hurst

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