For a moment on Thursday, Simon Crean stood at the very fulcrum of modern Labor history, and the bemused journalists surrounding him wondered which way things would tip. Would Rudd return to power to save the government and its major reforms, or would he be narrowly defeated again, and carry on undermining the Gillard government?
Nobody saw the third option – that Rudd would not even stand. Although this columnist argued in both 2012 (How is Rudd still a hero? February 2012) and this time around (Democracy's in trouble with or without Rudd, March 20) that the 'Rudd numbers' were a hoax, Rudd's refusal to contest Labor's leadership spill took everyone by surprise.
Finally, and surprisingly, Rudd did his party a favour. Had he run, the divisions that have crippled the Gillard government would have continued. There was 'no win option' from Gillard and Rudd going head to head (There's no 'win' option for Labor in the spill, March 21).
Instead, by not standing – and thereby enraging many of his supporters – Rudd ensured his defeat was so complete as to be final.
In a short address to journalists in Brisbane yesterday, Rudd said that all of his key supporters – including resigning ministers Kim Carr, Martin Ferguson and Chris Bowen, resigning chief whip Joel Fitzgibbon and leader of the house Anthony Albanese, who looks set to remain in his role – had joined him in his office ahead of the spill and, one by one, agreed there was nothing to be gained in standing.
That is likely true. What good could have come of it?
But to Rudd's outer circle of supporters, including the small circle of privately briefed journalists who had played a key role in perpetuating the 'Rudd numbers' myth, Rudd became a betrayer of the trust they wrongly placed in him.
Looking back over the past three years' history, Rudd's defeat is the end of a long campaign to reform the Labor Party via revolution, rather than the largely ineffectual evolutionary process begun by the Carr/Bracks/Faulkner review conducted in early 2011.
As I wrote at that time: "The Bracks/Carr/Faulkner review of Labor's appalling 2010 and the party's 'undemocratic' structure is yet another source of conflict within the party – a good half of the party wish it had never been conducted."
Two years on, Thursday's events show that 'a good half' was probably more like 'a good two thirds'. The MPs who would have voted against Rudd if he had contested the spill, did not think the extreme step of bringing back a deeply flawed leader was necessary to reform the party.
Put more simply, they were content for the party machine that replaced Rudd with Gillard in June 2010 to remain in place, and perhaps be gradually reined in over time. The 'faceless men', so reviled by the Coalition and its supporters (and by Rudd and his now scattered acolytes), will stay right where they are – for now.
It took nearly three year for this contest to play out. The question was whether a demagogue of Rudd's remarkable talent could use the sheer weight of a popular vote to break the stranglehold of 'undemocratic' forces on the Labor Party.
His mission was to banish union leaders from the inner workings of the parliamentary party, loosen their grip on pre-selections and national conference policy votes, knock the factions' heads together, and effectively create a 'New Labor' – a rebirth of the party brand similar to that achieved by Tony Blair in the UK.
That mission failed, and it's likely that history will record the failing as a personal one for Rudd. His task, begun while prime minster, was so vast, so all-consuming, that he forgot to look in the mirror along the way and see that the reformer had himself become a tyrant.
Rudd's 'execution', as it is so often called, was not only about the threat he posed to existing power structures in the Labor Party, but also about policy failures flowing from his autocratic style of leadership. The RSPT debacle and his shelving of carbon pricing plans were the key failings.
If any of Rudd's party reforms come to fruition, it will now be through a much slower process – but not impossible.
Looking forward, Labor's immediate task is for Rudd's aggrieved followers to fall into line – something Rudd has promised unequivocally to do himself, by saying he will never again take the leadership under any circumstances.
The government must also keep its minority government partners on-side, and sell its much under-rated reforms and economic management to a weary and disengaged public.
The first threat will come with a motion of no confidence that Tony Abbott has promised will be his first point of attack, when parliament sits again in budget week in mid-May.
Furious back-room lobbying is no doubt already underway to sway independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to withdraw their support for the Gillard government and force an election (Want another hospital, Rob? How about we don't run a candidate at all in New England, Tony? Will you at least sleep on it, he he?).
Lone Greens MP in the lower house, Adam Bandt, can be counted on to oppose the no-confidence vote, and anyone who thinks Oakeshott and Windsor are for turning should keep in mind the Coalition's long-standing promise to junk the two reforms they named as their primary reasons for backing Labor in September 2010 – carbon pricing and the NBN.
Most likely, then, the no-confidence motion will be nothing more than a well publicised stunt.
After that begins the concerted communications war that will determine whether Labor can cut through with is best selling point – the fact that under its stewardship, the Australian economy is returning to health, including, according to Fairfax papers today, in some non-resources sectors.
With the Rudd threat gone, and if journalists refocus their attention on policy debates, there is every chance of Labor coming back to prevent an Abbott landslide in September – winning may seem improbable, but a wipeout need not be a certainty.
And may the best policies win.