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'Silly to say nothing is going on' on Labor leadership

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Dan Harrison, Mark Kenny

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Fitzgibbon confirms Labor 'unrest'

The Gillard government's chief whip concedes 'unrest in the party room' over poor opinion polls as leadership speculation intensifies.

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Labor MPs are worried about their future, but there is no counting of numbers for a leadership change to Kevin Rudd, according to chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon.

''It would be silly to tell people watching your program that there is nothing going on,'' Mr Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Media's Breaking Politics on Wednesday.

''Obviously, internally people are looking at the polls and they are expressing concern about the future of the government and indeed the party and you'll get conversations and those conversations are, unfortunately, making their way into the media. We should keep them internal,'' he said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard exits the chamber after a division in the lower house on Tuesday night.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard exits the chamber after a division in the lower house on Tuesday night. Photo: Andrew Meares

  • See the full interview with Joel Fitzgibbon and Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg here.

But Mr Fitzgibbon, a known Rudd backer, said MPs were not counting numbers for a possible change to the former prime minister, despite reports on Wednesday morning that members of both the Rudd and Gillard camps were canvassing views.

''People are just speculating. We're six months out from an election, obviously we're struggling in the opinion polls. It's causing unrest in the party room, particularly amongst MPs that are on relatively narrow margins, about their future in this place,'' he said.

Mr Fitzgibbon said while there was no evidence a ballot was imminent this week, the leadership issue was being discussed and must be either decided now or left alone for good.

''I think this idea that the party could change leaders between Budget day and the September election is just a silly concept,'' he said.

During a caucus meeting on Tuesday, Mr Fitzgibbon criticised the media reform package, characterising it as poorly communicated and targeted. His views were echoed by veteran Labor minister Simon Crean, while other Labor MPs pushed for changes to controversial welfare cuts and an increase in the unemployment benefit.

Earlier on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Mental Health and Ageing Minister Mark Butler were forced to publicly declare their support for Ms Gillard after Fairfax Media reported they were considering a switch to Mr Rudd.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said on Wednesday he ''absolutely'' believed Ms Gillard retained party room support.

Asked whether constant speculation about the leadership was negative for the government, Mr Dreyfus said: ''That's stating the obvious but I say 'absolutely'.''

Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan said on Wednesday that Ms Gillard was ''as tough as they make them''.

''She's going to beat Tony Abbott because she's focused on the big reforms for the future,'' he said.

Anger is growing inside the ALP caucus after fevered speculation of an imminent leadership showdown between Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd has so far amounted to nothing.

MPs in the undecided camp and even some being counted as previously solid Rudd votes, have told colleagues they are furious that while Senator Carr and Mr Butler, were ''hung out to dry'' and ''outed'' as Rudd supporters, Mr Rudd himself has refused to ''step up to the plate''.

Amid a flurry of rumours in a febrile Parliament House including one circulated by the opposition of a 4pm special caucus meeting on Wednesday, since discredited, there are suggestions that even within the Rudd camp, divisions are emerging.

Some want to bring on a spill and an immediate challenge, but others favour waiting to ensure the numbers for success are there first, aware that the February 2012 challenge yielded fewer backers for Mr Rudd than had been promised in internal canvassing.

Nobody is confidently predicting the next few hours, let alone the coming days and weeks.

Sage number counters for Ms Gillard maintain that the Rudd camp is once again overstating its support in a bid to create momentum and pick up those MPs who like to end up in the winning column.

A meeting this morning of Rudd strategists has failed to resolve a next step but is said to have discussed options which included sending a delegation to call on Ms Gillard for a spill (probably late Wednesday) through to gathering signatures on caucus to declare all leadership positions vacant.

The parliamentary party's rules state that a spill must be granted if a third or more of the caucus signs a petition to that end.

However, it is also understood that the caucus secretary, Gavin Marshall, has some discretion in this regard. Senator Marshall is regarded as a Rudd backer.

Most Labor MPs have gone to ground refusing to take phone calls or return them.

Many MPs are sharply critical of Mr Rudd, who despite the furious activity of his backers is publicly holding to his commitment to not mount a direct challenge on the Prime Minister.

MPs are furious that the former prime minister appears intent on forcing Ms Gillard, and the Labor government, on to the rocks so as to make his drafting an inevitability.

However, the damage being done to brand Labor by the crisis also threatens to erode his numbers.

with Daniel Hurst

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