As expected, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has called a leadership ballot for Monday, citing a need to settle the issue ‘once and for all’. Rudd is still to declare whether he will contest that ballot, although it’s likely.
With that in mind, let’s examine some scenarios.
Scenario 1: Rudd loses with the support of more than a third of the caucus.
Result: Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem for Gillard. To have the support of two-thirds of the caucus should be conclusive. In fact, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott won his challenge against Malcolm Turnbull by only one vote, he spun the narrowest of victories as indicative of party unity.
There is a problem, though. Gillard’s supporters are out there talking down Rudd’s support as vanishingly small, well short of having enough numbers to even mount a challenge under party rules. If they are proved wrong, it raises the question of whether Rudd is a viable alternative to Gillard – perhaps not today, but soon. The Keating model. And once the question is raised, Rudd becomes a focus for discontent with Gillard.
Gillard tried to stave that off in her speech today by effectively challenging Rudd to a dare. She announced that if she lost – adding quickly that she did not expect that to happen – she would go to the back bench and promise never to challenge again, and called on Rudd to make a similar undertaking. Of course, that’s nonsensical. Any such undertaking isn’t worth the bytes it’s recorded on (oh dear, the old print metaphors really are the best). There are any number of get-out clauses, from the tried-and-true ‘I know I promised but people are begging me’ to the weak but difficult to refute ‘that was then, the world has changed’.
So she’s left with Rudd on the back bench as a credible alternative who’s free to speak his mind, not bound by the usual constraints on Ministers.
Scenario 2: Rudd loses comprehensively.
Result: This should spell the end of Rudd’s leadership ambitions. But again, he could employ the Keating model. This time, though, he keeps his head down. He publicly supports the government when called on to specifically do so, but looks pained about it. He reminds the media at every turn that he is a back bencher, and refers them to appropriate Ministers or to Gillard herself.
And, as in the previous scenario, he becomes a focus for discontent among back benchers. A leader ignores the possibility of a back bench revolt at their peril – after all, there are more of them than the Cabinet, many with personal axes to grind on behalf of their individual electorates.
Both of these scenarios presume that the Coalition wins the next election. On the strength of polling trends, this seems likely. Rudd losing a challenge now and going to the back bench sets him up as someone to lead Labor out of the electoral wilderness. He has a proven track record in winning elections – and not via the skin of his teeth, either.
Scenario 3: Rudd wins.
It’s an outside chance, at best. Although Centrebet reports that Rudd’s odds are shortening (no link provided, in the interests of avoiding spam trackbacks, but it’s easy enough to find), enough Labor figures have already declared support for Gillard to make it unlikely that he could snatch victory. But let’s look at it anyway – just for fun.
Obviously, there would be a huge sense of personal achievement for Rudd, not to mention a fair amount of ‘best served cold’ satisfaction. It might also bring disaffected, left-leaning voters back to the party – those who objected to the way Gillard became Prime Minister in the first place, or who reject her policy stances (which can be described as Centre Right at best). If Rudd bullies through his stated aims on party reform, constraining the power of the factions and unions, it removes a key plank from Abbott’s anti-Labor platform. And he just might squeak an election victory, if enough voters forgive him for the political manoeuvring he undertook to get back the top job.
Even if he doesn’t win the next election, he can argue to keep the leader’s job in Opposition, on the grounds that he needs time to consolidate reforms.
An outside chance, yes – but it has to be one he’s considered.
Scenario 4: Rudd does not challenge.
This is by far the least likely scenario. All the rhetoric suggests Rudd is positioning himself to contest the leadership on Monday – and possibly that he expects to lose, setting up the groundwork for a later challenge (at least, according to Labor strategist and Rudd backer Bruce Hawker). In the interests of completeness, though …
It’s a very, very dangerous strategy. Rudd risks looking like a coward, talking big about the need for good leadership and touting his own credentials, then not following through. He also risks having his supporters – both public and Parliamentary – turn on him.
On the other hand, if he’s clever enough, he can spin it. His speeches weren’t a job application – he was defending himself, and warning people of the need to work hard to (a) defeat Abbott and (b) come through the looming Eurozone financial crisis. It would take some brilliant speechifying – and while he’s capable of it, I think it’s too great a risk.
So there you have it.
But no matter what scenario ends up being played out, Rudd’s already won. He’s drawn out into the spotlight the venom with which Gillard’s supporters regard him. Steve Gibbons called him a ‘psychopath’. Simon Crean said he was a ‘prima donna’. Nicola Roxon advised us to get over the idea that he’s a ‘messiah’. And from Treasurer Wayne Swan (also Treasurer under Rudd) came an extraordinarily petulant spray that his media advisors clearly never saw until it was too late.
This morning, Rudd spoke about the damaging nature of those comments, how they showed disunity and helped only the Coalition. He urged those speaking out on his behalf not to be drawn into the same kind of personal comments, confined his remarks to policy decisions, and talked himself up rather than criticise of Gillard herself.
By contrast, Gillard – already under fire for not chastising her Cabinet and supporting Rudd as Foreign Minister – engaged in similar personal attacks this morning. She accused him of everything from deliberately sabotaging the 2010 election campaign to single-handedly paralysing the government through his ‘chaotic work patterns’ to responsibility for her government’s inability to communicate its agenda (something she’s previously ascribed solely to Abbott).
Rudd also gave credit to Gillard’s government for pushing through reforms – with the reminder that these were begun by his own government. Gillard characterised the Rudd government as entirely ineffectual, and claimed solely for herself those same reforms.
The language was clear. The contrast was clear. And yes, you can say that Rudd was talking in private, leaking to the media, undermining Gillard privately. Maybe he was. Politicians do that. Remember Gillard arguing against Rudd’s proposed pension increases? Remember the leaks against Rudd? And still, no one has yet come out and categorically stated that they were briefed in a de-stabilising campaign by Rudd, or named any followers who have allegedly done so.
Rudd’s not a white knight, by any means. He’s a slick political operator, as is Gillard. You only have to look at how they’re handling this issue. It’s a textbook in politics.
But Rudd’s the clear victor in one sense. He exposed the vicious side of Gillard’s team. He blindsided her by resigning from Cabinet without warning. He’s reminded people of why he became Labor leader, and why the Australian public elected him the first place.
And now he’s effectively barricaded against the media for around 24 hours. It does give Gillard a clear field – but it also means that the media will zero in on her wherever she goes. She already displayed her temper once this morning at a particularly insistent journalist.
You can bet the pressure won’t let up until Monday morning. And in the meantime, Rudd can monitor, strategise and assess the situation.
He may not have the numbers, but so far, he’s ahead on points.