Gillard is now a real threat to Abbott

If Kevin Rudd's defeat sees political discourse shift from the current ludicrous slanging match to something like serious debate, there's a good chance Tony Abbott will have a problem.

So there is it: Rudd 31 votes, Gillard 71.

What does it mean? If, as Keating once said, Labor needs a primary vote "with a four in front of it" to win government, Rudd needed a figure with three in front of it to have even close to the credibility to run against Gillard again in the next 17 or so months.

The fact that he scraped in close to the low end of that range should be enough to keep him out of the ears of caucus members at least, though the prospect of Rudd not continuing to make high-profile appearances with 'the Australian people' seems like a bit of a stretch.

This is very bad news for Tony Abbott. While the Opposition leader put on a good show during the spill process of repeatedly saying he didn't particularly care which leader he would have to face off against in 2013, the truth is that a Rudd cabinet would have been easy pickings for Abbott, the master of populist attacks on Labor.

A Rudd front bench would been very weak – not only because some of Labor's best policy minds would have been banished to the back bench, but because even the ministers remaining in their roles would have served each day in an environment of bitterness, recrimination and most likely utter dysfunction.

The Gillard front bench is a much stronger outcome, particularly now we know that two thirds of caucus have given her their confidence.

As suggested earlier today, this is the first time in the long, sorry affair of the Rudd destabilisation and challenge, for the national media to move political theatre to the back-burner and start – please, please – to pick apart both Labor and the Coaliton's policy platforms and let voters decide which offers Australia the brightest future (How is Rudd still a hero? February 27).

If that sounds wrong, it's important to remember that the policy analysis of news media outlets such as Business Spectator is not typical of the nightly TV news and the biggest broadcast news, or print and online editions of newspapers. The policy debate needs to move to the front pages and if, as Abbott's supporters argue, the Coalition has robust policies to answer Labor's, that's what the punters will ultimately decide for themselves.

To this point we have not had that – political discourse since September 2010 has often been a ludicrous slanging match that has given the Coalition easy points, and has simply not required the Abbott team to dig deeply into Labor's policies themselves. By that I don't mean that the Coalition doesn't understand Labor's policies – obviously each shadow minister is across his or her portfolio – but that they are not required to address them in detail in parliament when 'scrap the tax' or 'stop the boats', followed by a censure motion to shut down question time, seems to do just fine.

So let the contest of ideas, and the communication of those ideas begin. If Abbott really rises to that challenge, Gillard is finished.

But if something like serious political debate emerges in this country in the next 17 months there's a good chance Abbott has a problem. Labor will try to attack what at present looks like an incoherent mix of policies, with no real underlying political philosophy – unless you accept Rob Oakeshott's analysis that it is, in fact, "more like the Democratic Labor Party, more like One Nation, than anybody".

That's a fairly extreme analysis, but such criticisms risk a poll slide for Abbott and the rumblings of a challenge within his own ranks – albeit one a bit cleaner than the Rudd tilt.

Of course there is no guarantee that Rudd won't continue to spoil Labor's prospects with subtle leaks, digs, and photo-ops from the backbench. That would be a bad outcome for the nation. However, if today's vote has finally removed the Rudd threat, then a real policy contest can begin. And may the best side win.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter

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