Destabilisation comes easily to politicians in a democracy. After all, they have just the one goal: self-preservation.
Whenever it’s a government or an opposition looking feeble, wayward and losing public trust, the time-honoured solution is to mount a backroom campaign to change the leader. And it can happen with a mere handful of anonymous, C-grade empty suits.
It’s rarely the policy. It’s the leader.
Governments back to John Gorton have faced the dilemma. Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke were also challenged formally in their job as prime minister. John Howard was challenged informally and his leadership undermined in later years by Peter Costello. Kevin Rudd fell in the dead of night without a formal fight. Julia Gillard faces the same test.
Opposition leaders, of course, pass through their party rooms with regularity – it’s all a bit of fun. Those who never made it to the Lodge were Bill Snedden, Bill Hayden, Andrew Peacock, John Hewson, Alexander Downer, Simon Crean, Kim Beazley, Mark Latham, Brendon Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and, to this point, Tony Abbott.
So Australians these days are watching yet another surreal political soap opera unfold.
A week ago, a prominent columnist took up two pages in a tabloid to predict a challenge from Kevin Rudd within days! Nothing new there – we’ve been reading this stuff for months.
In a Melbourne radio studio last week, a minister was asked a series of questions about his support for the PM which invited a "yes” or "no” response. He answered "yes” and "no” – and was pilloried by commentators, and lampooned on the TV news.
Cable TV specialises in journalists interviewing journalists, while asking for audience "tweets”. It’s gossip, opinion, speculation – all on daily display. Even an American media mogul who owns a newspaper or two in Australia tweets insightful opinion on domestic politics for our grateful thanks and our edification.
Then suddenly, along comes yet another poll. It’s good news, of sorts. Julia preferred to Tony, but would still be crushed. The narrative changes. Kevin will now hold off, and just wait out the inevitable.
But wait, there’s more: a Four Corners expose tonight into leadership tensions that will spawn into more front pages tomorrow. Gillard will be asked again, so will Rudd. They will give the same answers.
Of course, this story will be never-ending.
There is no natural conclusion. Kevin Rudd is not within a bull’s roar of the numbers, nor has the present inclination for a crack. But the few "disgruntled” will keep backgrounding on his behalf, or their own. Gillard will not bring it on because she doesn’t have to, and knows that in politics, the challenger finally wins.
So what happens now? The short answer is: nothing.
The Gillard government’s internal focus until May will be to ensure they deliver a budget surplus as now firmly and bravely promised. It will be to continue with infrastructure reform. It will be to ensure the NBN roll-out does not get bogged down in regulatory morass. It will be to "sell” the carbon tax when it comes into effect on July 1.
Politically, it will be to draw a deep line in the sand between its economic strategies and jobs management and those spruiked by the opposition, in varying forms.
They have no choice but to simply get on with the grind of governing. For Gillard, it’s about getting up every day, doing her job and putting the national interest first. It’s about delivering good public policy, and hoping that translates into good politics. It’s about substance, not sham.
The opposition is in an enviable position.
It can paint the government "as the most incompetent in Australia’s history” and have that faithfully reported. It can continue to oppose almost everything the government proposes, knowing it has the public largely onside, along with sections of the media set on regime change – whatever the price. It can continue with its own "aspirational” policies that are not set in stone. It can continue to dig up dirt files and call for instant elections, thus adding to a general sense of political instability.
As expected, the start of the parliamentary year offered no insights or new thoughts. But it did put on display a confused and convoluted Abbott, Hockey and Robb message on fiscal aspirations, and a far feistier Gillard with a belated but pointed focus on economic management – long seen as the Liberals' strong suit.
No-one – and that includes the prime minister – knows how this opera will end.
She knows the speculation will continue. She knows the media will be relentless. They are only a poll away from more speculation. She knows that YouTubing Rudd is having a ball, is "a very happy little vegemite” and that journalists love taking his calls.
But she doesn’t know for certain how long she will last. She could go on 'til voters have their say in September next year. She could be challenged – and win or lose, eventually. As political history has written large in recent decades, it all comes with the top job.
I think she will survive. There is no other option.
Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.