His shock resignation leaves him free to marshal the troops against Julia Gillard.
AS THE simple but brilliantly effective television advertisements for industry superannuation say, compare the pair. Victorian Labor backbencher Darren Cheeseman on Saturday called for Julia Gillard to step down as party leader. His comments were published in The Sunday Age. On Monday, Gillard called Cheeseman and voiced her displeasure at his comments.
Regional Affairs Minister Simon Crean set out on Monday to publicly deride his cabinet colleague Kevin Rudd, calling into question Rudd's truthfulness and loyalty. He was not brought into line by the Prime Minister. No uncomfortable prime ministerial phone call for Crean.
Nor has the Prime Minister repudiated any other members of the government over their public criticisms of Rudd. Backbenchers and ministers alike have gone after him, being rolled out into the media one by one. Yesterday, the member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, echoed Human Services Minister Brendan O'Connor's demand that Rudd pledge fealty to Gillard or get out.
Cabinet members have been briefing members of the parliamentary press gallery against Rudd all week. The campaign that began with the exposure last Saturday of privately held and hitherto unseen video out-takes of Rudd swearing in his office in 2009 culminated at lunchtime yesterday with well-sourced reports predicting Rudd's sacking by Gillard upon his return to Australia.
When that news went out yesterday, Gillard's brains trust was feeling very good about the progress of its campaign to trample Rudd and stop the drift of support to him within the caucus. Indeed, her key backers were convinced the drift had been reversed, that in fact MPs who were thought to be Rudd supporters had gone back to Gillard in big numbers.
To their way of thinking, Rudd had nowhere to turn. He was in the process of being embarrassed and he was set to suffer, at Gillard's hands, one final humiliation. He had no tactical ammunition. He was on the other side of the world until Sunday and was, in effect, a stationary target. As a minister, he could not go out and directly court support from his caucus colleagues - especially now that his every move, every overture, every conversation was being monitored.
Meanwhile, every minister in the government was obliged to publicly declare, under media questioning, undying support for the Prime Minister. At the very least, they could not declare for Rudd. To do so would lead to their sacking. The public impression was of Rudd having at best two or three inconsequential supporters in a caucus of 103. Gillard's people, reflecting on an efficient public campaign, concluded that Rudd was fully in retreat.
But late yesterday afternoon, Rudd shocked them all. Rudd's resignation means that he is free to criticise Gillard and her backers. He can offer a full and frank critique of the Prime Minister and of the direction of the government. He can do this publicly and privately. So too can every backbencher who sympathises with him.
Now, the contest between Gillard and Rudd is fully joined. By tomorrow, three days before Parliament resumes in Canberra, Rudd the backbencher will be back in Australia, up and running as an alternative to Gillard.
It is due to fortuity more than anything else, but his decision to step down as foreign minister yesterday means that the opinion polling about to carried out over the next few days, and likely to be published on Monday, will be able to test respective support for Rudd and Gillard cleanly, outside of the phoney war atmosphere of the past two weeks.
It was clear from Rudd's resignation announcement that his message to his colleagues will be built on his desire to wrest control of the government and the Labor Party from what he called "the faceless men" who he argues have controlled the Prime Minister since her elevation to the leadership 20 months ago. He will be portraying himself as being able to draw a line under the period that began in June 2010 and has seen the Labor Party's stocks hit historic lows.
Gillard's supporters have had a consistent, powerful and persuasive message this week, in among their criticisms of Rudd: this must be settled once and for all. They are about to get what they want, but it will not come about in exactly the way that they had been expecting.
Shaun Carney is an associate editor.