Independents warn on Rudd leadership switch

THE two country independents propping up the Gillard government have warned of an early election if there is a switch to Kevin Rudd, as key powerbroker Bill Shorten indicated he remains rusted on to the Prime Minister.

THE two country independents propping up the Gillard government have warned of an early election if there is a switch to Kevin Rudd, as key powerbroker Bill Shorten indicated he remains rusted on to the Prime Minister.

With supporters of Julia Gillard and Mr Rudd in overdrive yesterday, sources close to Mr Shorten, who helped install Ms Gillard and strongly backed her against Mr Rudd in February, rejected any suggestion that he would change to backing Mr Rudd.

Neither Mr Shorten, who is Workplace Relations Minister, nor his former union, the Australian Workers Union, believed in being "half-hearted" in their support, the sources said. Mr Shorten who has been in the United States this week for the Australian-American Dialogue has been speculated about as a possible deputy prime minister if he moved to Mr Rudd.

Independent Tony Windsor said "all bets would be off", if there was a change of leader.

"Obviously the formation of government occurs on the floor of the House not in written agreements," said Mr Windsor, adding that his written agreement with Ms Gillard was "not transferable". "A change of leaders would be a high-risk strategy that would open up the option of an early election."

Fellow independent Rob Oakeshott (right) said he was focused on the very full policy agenda before Parliament. "But if the Labor Party is more interested in focusing on the next election, then I will do what I can to oblige them with that next election."

Mr Oakeshott said he reflected the mood of the majority of Australians who were "utterly sick of leadership speculation". He was not making a "threat" and would not be drawn on precisely what he would do if there was switch.

Labor had a "simple choice. They've got at least 12 months with existing arrangements . . . Or they could blow it up and away we go."

Rudd sources sought to hose down the prospect of an early poll if he became PM, saying the independents would not want the term cut short.

The Gillard forces are talking up the premature election threat, which one senior figure said would mean "early retirement for a lot of caucus members". Gillard backers insist the unions which are very much against a premature poll are still fully behind Ms Gillard.

The unions were "all rock solid", said a Gillard strategist. "Every single union, every single union leader is in the same place as they were" during the February leadership ballot when Ms Gillard trounced Mr Rudd.

The Gillard forces flatly rejected reports this week that there has been some shift in the union movement, indicating it won't seek to or be able to protect Ms Gillard so effectively as the pressure on her leadership mounts. But Rudd sources claim "the unions are reconsidering their position".

Ms Gillard held a meeting last night with the leadership of national unions, discussing a range of policy and political issues. Earlier yesterday, they met the ALP national secretary George Wright. The meetings had been arranged some time ago but took on an extra edge after it was reported that a meeting of unions on Tuesday, which discussed setting up a fighting fund and levying union members, had canvassed the prospect of Labor changing to Mr Rudd.

Tony Abbott, also in the US for the Dialogue, pointed to the spectre of the "faceless men".

Reacting to a threat by Transport Workers Union chief Tony Sheldon to withhold donations from the ALP if it dumped Ms Gillard, Mr Abbott said: "The general public think that they should be choosing the Prime Minister, not subcontracting the job out to faceless men, and when union leaders start making these kinds of threats I think it worries people. They think that the Labor Party is the plaything of unelected union officials, not the servant of the Australian people."

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