Bowling to Rudd's visions of grandeur

An election annihilation of Julia Gillard would pave the way for Kevin Rudd to fulfil his dual ambition of leading Labor and returning the party to glory.

In cricket it's called the 'nightwatchman' – a lower order batsman who is asked to bat through the last hour or so of a day's play in a test match to avoid sending a top quality batsman to the crease. The big hitter can then take over in the morning – fresh, bright, and hitting sixes.

And with each passing day it becomes clearer that Kevin Rudd, aged 55 and three quarters, would be much better waiting until after the next election to strap on the pads as leader of the parliamentary Labor party.

One Rudd supporting MP told me yesterday that it would be "highly unusual for the party to allow things to keep drifting as they are beyond the end of this year". That sounds about right. Julia Gillard, despite all her policy and legislative wins, just won't help Labor retain any seats at the next election.

So Rudd supporters have to think this through – do they really believe Rudd can defeat the unstoppable machine that is Tony Abbott? Even Abbott's own team don't seem game to take on Australia's most famous smuggler of small birds.

When I asked one Liberal Senator recently if the party was happy with Abbott's expensive and thoroughly socialist push for paid parental leave funded by a 'levy' on big business (that's right, a new tax), the reply was "no, but we're not going to stand between Tony and power".

To return to the cricketing metaphor, Abbott is the Douglas Jardine of Australian politics – he knows how to remove the entire ALP batting order before sundown by bowling rather unsportsmanlike bouncers as Jardine did in the infamous Bodyline series.

In this case, the bouncers will inflict painful bruises on various parts of Labor's anatomy – a thick ear for the mining tax, a bruised shoulder for the NBN, and shattered spectacles ( la Bob Hawke) over Labor's myopic attitude to public debt.

And then there's the really fast one, pitched much longer, that will shoot through low and hard – the carbon tax special that will strike Labor's, ahem, heartland and send it hobbling back to the pavilion.

Rudd's backers, like Greg Chappell in his famous seven-duck run in the early 1980s, are sure that Kevin can hook that last ball to the boundary and save the day. But that's not at all clear. This commentator is happy to concede that he was wrong to predict a poll bounce when the money attached to Clean Energy Future carbon pricing package appeared in voter's bank accounts.

The money is there now (though much has apparently been withdrawn to feed into poker machines), and today's Newspoll shows clearly that there was no bounce. Labor's primary vote is a devastating 28 per cent.

If the relatively young Kevin Rudd really is a megalomaniac, surely the more attractive option is to be the leader that rebuilds Labor after the next election and, moreover, holds Tony Abbott ruthlessly to account for promises that no credible commentator has yet been able to reconcile with the federal government's fragile fiscal position.

Megalomania is not about winning the leadership for a few months before the next poll – by biding his time, Rudd, in his power-drunk dreams at least, could go on to rule the nation for a decade or two, Menzies-style. It's worth remembering that John Howard was 57 when he defeated Paul Keating, and 68 when he lost power. Time really is on Rudd's side.

All of which raises the question of when Gillard should step down, and who she should choose as nightwatchman. Simon Crean springs to mind, but there may be others.

One thing is certain though – Gillard will be judged harshly for leading her party to annihilation. To step aside before the end of this year would allow her to be remembered as a major reforming force that voters just didn't like. That should be reason enough for the PM to keep a short list of likely nightwatchmen in her prime ministerial desk draw, and get ready to retire to the pavilion where the drinks are cold and the view excellent.

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