Abbott has lost the Rudd advantage

The spectre of Rudd which has haunted Julia Gillard's government - and her poll numbers - appears to have vanished in the cautious, cold light of day.

Is that it? Is it over? A Labor leadership spill with only one candidate each for the vacated positions of prime minister and deputy PM would appear to bring the Kevin Rudd fiasco of the past three years to an end.

And yes, I mean three years. Whether it was Rudd personally, or overzealous followers who leaked against Julia Gillard during the 2010 election, this government was always cursed. The Rudd stories rose and fell like a tide, but the lurking menace kept Gillard, if you'll forgive the pun, at sea.

As explained on Wednesday (Democracy's in trouble with or without Rudd, March 20) the Rudd camp was aided from the start by a small army of journalists happy to promote the idea that the former PM 'had the numbers', in February 2012 and again today.

Those numbers – compiled again and again by hard-working scribes ­– were too often based on wink-wink, nudge-nudge conversations with backbenchers worried about their futures within the party.

But they were also worried about their future in the party if a forced spill, or draft of Kevin Rudd, required them to make their names public. Several did at the 2012 spill, and many copped demotion and retribution as a result.

Add that all-too-human timidity to the horror stories of the trials and indignities MPs suffered during the Rudd years – and the fact that major party powerbrokers (Stephen Conroy, Bill Shorten and outsiders such as Paul Howes) were steady in backing Gillard – and one thing was clear: there were deep structural forces working against a Rudd win.

In short, MPs dreamed of sweeping back to power under Rudd in September, but in the cold light of day they knew that the risks – personal and party-wide – called for prudence.

The Coalition will publicly celebrate today's spill result, but the backroom strategists know that one advantage over Labor – the gnawing rot that the Rudd destabilisation caused – is most likely eliminated.

Certainly chief whip Joel Fitzgibbon put a convincing face to this line by telling reporters Australia would hear "a lot less from Joel Fitzgibbon" between now and the next election, including him weighing up whether to resign as whip.

I have been astonished in past days to hear colleagues argue that the frequent front page headlines predicting a Rudd return had no real bearing on Labor's lagging primary vote. In reality, those stories helped bat the poll figures down each time they looked to be recovering.

While it's true that carbon pricing stories did most of the work to weaken this government, followed by refugee policy, and now kicked along wonderfully by the media regulation fiasco, the narrative of 'give the people back President Rudd' was clearly worth a few points in each poll.

It will be hard for some commentators to accept that the Rudd threat is over, and some will try to kick that meme along the road as long as possible.

Those who do, while so many serious policy issues remain unexamined, should reflect for a moment on their own role in destabilising a democratically elected government.