Has Rudd walked into an almighty trap?

By all appearances, Kevin Rudd seems to be on top of the world. But could the serene faces on the outgoing Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan betray his real fate?

Has Kevin Rudd walked into an almighty trap? Events of the past few days may have appeared chaotic and unpredictable, but look further and there seems to be more to the Rudd resurrection than meets the eye.

The evidence is circumstantial – it could not be otherwise, until various players’ memoirs are published decades from now – but there is certainly a pattern of events to suggest Bill Shorten’s bid to save the ALP from Kevin Rudd is working.

Before getting into that, let me say that Shorten receives high praise from some of my sources – yes, he’s a schemer and ruthless powerbroker, they say, but he’s also an incredibly hard worker and the driving force behind Labor’s historic DisabilityCare reforms. In this dirty game of politics, say Shorten fans, all leaders have some blood on their hands.

The question over Shorten’s role this week is exactly whose blood he’s rinsing off. The dominant narrative is that he has ‘betrayed’ Julia Gillard, or ‘knifed’ the very woman he manoeuvred to install as PM in 2010.

But all may not be as it seems. A high-level, high-profile political strategist told me some weeks ago that Shorten was “doing everything he can to get Rudd to run for the leadership”, as a circuitous but certain way to remove the Rudd threat to his own ambitions to one day be PM.

Let’s not forget, however, that no matter what kind of machiavellian Shorten is, his roots are in the union movement. Even in moments of cynicism or treachery, a man like Shorten believes in the party with which his former union, the AWU, has a symbiotic relationship.

Shorten will not wish to see Rudd sever links with the unions in the way he began to do between 2007 and 2010. Under Gillard’s prime ministership, unions have had a number of wins, most recently gaining strong right-of-entry provisions in the Fair Work Act, and succeeding in tightening 457 visa regulations to slow the flow of foreign workers into Australia (a piece of legislation that Rudd allowed to pass parliament on his first day in the job).

So by fostering a successful Rudd challenge, Shorten would know he faced two prospects – a Rudd victory at the federal election, which would cement the move away from the unions; or a Rudd loss that would make Shorten himself leader of the opposition, and end Rudd’s influence within the party for all time.

That latter outcome is pretty tempting and the cynics (and Shorten’s enemies) would see a strong motive for leaking or in some other way wrecking Rudd’s election campaign, in the way Rudd is widely believed to have done to Gillard’s 2010 campaign.

But then it’s not actually necessary to suggest such a sinister move. As journalist Andrew Crook recently wrote in Crikey, the ‘sudden’ switch of Shorten to the Rudd camp on Wednesday evening was actually “the end point of months of wailing within Victorian Labor”.

Crook writes: “In Victoria, long considered Gillard's ‘rock’, the thinking within Shorten's Australian Workers Union circle was always that Labor could safely hold onto the crown jewels even if the rest of the country was aflame with anti-Gillard pathos ... On June 4, JWS Research polling was leaked to News Limited. Almost surreally, it showed [Victorian seat of] Isaacs was now in play with a 15.4 per cent swing. Alarm bells, and Shorten's mobile, started ringing off the hook. It's understood Shorten then took the extreme step of commissioning private polling in his seat of Maribyrnong, that he holds by 17.5 per cent on the new boundaries.”

While Crook’s article argues that this forced Shorten’s AWU supporters to panic, and to talk Shorten into the Rudd camp just to protect their Victorian powerbase, there is another interpretation to these events – that the swings under Gillard were so big, that even with Rudd leading the party Labor would lose government.

That would make the choice for aspirant Shorten extremely clear. Become leader of a handful of Labor MPs after a Gillard loss at the federal election, or lead a large number of Labor MPs after a Rudd loss – with the latter option also guaranteeing that Abbott would not have control of the senate.

Viewed through this lens, Rudd has walked into a trap.

The election, if Rudd loses, will end his career. Had he waited until after the election to rebuild the party in his own image and defeat an unpopular conservative government at a 2016 election, he would have been unstoppable.

Could this be the reason Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan look so chipper in their joint media conference late on Wednesday night?

Swan, so often a flustered, frustrated and angry performer when dealing with journalists, looked just as sanguine, just as magnanimous in defeat as Gillard had been moments before.

Historians will piece together these events when more information comes to light. But from this moment in time it's quite feasible that Gillard, Swan and Shorten all knew exactly what they were doing on Wednesday evening.

The common view of Shorten is that he was devastated, at his media conference at 6.30pm on Wednesday, to be changing camps, and that his relationships with his friends are severely damaged.

When I spoke to AWU leader Paul Howes on Friday, Howes said he would be maintaining a “dignified silence” for some weeks.

It’ll be some time before we know Howes’ real views of Gillard, but it does bring to mind that lyric from Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues: "The tears on her cheeks are from laughter".

The apocryphal ‘petition’ that ‘flushed Gillard out’ may not have been an invention of the Rudd camp after all.