Kevin Rudd says he can win the voters, she can’t. Julia Gillard says she runs a functional government, and his was shambolic. Both are right. Caucus members face an invidious choice. Whatever they do — and at this point they are expected to re-elect Gillard — it will be a disaster. In less than five years, thanks mainly to two leaders who have been bad in very different ways, this Labor government has become almost as discredited as the Whitlam one all those years ago.
On the present numbers, most members of caucus are out of sync with the people. On the basis of all earlier polls, voters want Rudd back, and no doubt this will be reconfirmed in the polls to come before Monday’s vote.
What an irony: all this talk about poll-driven politics and yet the caucus seems determined to ignore the polls on the vital question of leadership. Either madness, or a determined choice about the style of government, according to your view.
If Gillard is re-elected, the public could feel even more sour towards Labor than it does now, because the ALP will have failed to heed the popular voice. If, against the odds, Rudd won, he would have been so trashed by senior ministers that it’s hard to think how the government could regroup and function. Surely there would have to be quite a few ministerial vacancies.
The Gillard camp’s tactic to vilify Rudd undermines the party and tarnishes Labor’s achievements. If Rudd fluked a win, Tony Abbott could dispense with the ad agency and cut and paste the transcripts.
As one minister followed another in describing how appalling Rudd had been, the Gillard supporters displayed the usual discipline in following a ‘‘line’’, but the line is so abusive that it is shocking. Ministers are not only tearing Rudd to shreds, they are destroying their own credibility.
Take Treasurer Wayne Swan. He said on May 18, 2010, just a month before he was party to the coup that ousted Rudd: ‘‘Kevin Rudd has a deep commitment to Australia, a fantastic work ethic, and a very good record to put to people at the next election.”
On Wednesday this week, in his brutal attack on Rudd, Swan said: ‘‘The party has given Kevin Rudd all the opportunities in the world and he wasted them with his dysfunctional decision making and his deeply demeaning attitude towards other people, including our caucus colleagues.’’
Was Swan telling the truth when he was serving under Rudd, or is he telling it now? Swan explains discrepancies in his comments by saying he has ‘‘been a team player all of my life’’. He can’t say he only became aware of the Rudd negatives in retrospect. He was one of the gang of four that ran the government under Rudd. He tried to get change, he says, but Rudd’s ‘‘behaviour then became increasingly erratic and that is why the leadership changed’’. Yet remember how late in the piece Swan was still praising Rudd.
Then there is Craig Emerson, who has been out saying all sorts of unpleasant things about Rudd — whom he backed in the 2010 vote.
Gillard herself has joined the denigration of Rudd, a risky decision — the normal thing would be for a leader to stand above the dirt-throwing but she wants to get the curse of the coup off her back. The PM said the Rudd government became paralysed; she too tried to get things back on course before she challenged Rudd. It seems beyond belief that senior ministers used to tough politics couldn’t do more to rein Rudd in. It says as much about them as him.
The Gillard camp’s campaign is dirty, demeaning and destructive, even taking into account the usual excesses of leadership battles. It’s unworthy of its perpetrators. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be effective — not least because it has its roots in a lot of truth.
Rudd’s ploy is to take the high moral ground, appealing to supporters not to respond in kind. Although this is driven by tactics rather than virtue, it certainly looks more edifying to the outside world. But it’s not the public who will get a vote on Monday.
Of course Rudd plays by double standards, though he strives to keep them disguised. He said he resigned because the PM had not shown confidence in him, and it’s true she didn’t. But equally he has been serially disloyal to her. The ‘‘who, me?’’ pose is nonsense.
Gillard is trying to get a patch of the moral ground. She says that if she is defeated — not that she expects that — she will go to the backbench and never eye the leadership again, and calls on Rudd also to put aside his ambitions after a loss. But Gillard’s is an empty promise. If she lost, the possibility of return would not pass through anyone’s head.
On Rudd’s side, a real pledge of loyalty is something that’s never going to come. While there was the slightest chance of a comeback, Rudd would hold himself ready, regardless of the clever words he might find to suggest anything else.
Whatever happens, Labor’s agony looks certain to drag on. Many in the community think the time has come for an election — to revisit the 2010 poll that produced a non-result.
An election would prevent the government finishing some of the things it is doing. But if Gillard holds her job and you accept her government is headed for oblivion whenever it goes to the polls, arguably a quick election could have some upside even for Labor.
The counter-argument for Labor is that something might turn up but it’s hard to see. At least an election would allow a fresh start with a (brand) new leader. But forget what the voters want: on election timing, as on leadership, Labor appears in no mood to think about their preferences just now.
Michelle Grattan is Age political editor.
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