He currently lacks the numbers in caucus but Kevin Rudd has displayed remarkable tactical nous in launching two lightning, long-distance attacks on the Julia Gillard camp in the past 24 hours, leaving the stronger, better-organised Labor leadership looking lead-footed and reactive.
Despite claiming the leadership issue had become a soap opera, it was Rudd himself who injected the most melodramatic notes, with a late-night resignation press conference from Washington timed for the Australian evening news bulletins. That was followed this morning by another press conference to outline his policy agenda while, he insisted, a plane sat awaiting him on the tarmac, timed to disrupt Gillard’s morning press conference to declare a leadership spill.
Like his claim to be doing the honourable thing in the face of dishonourable behaviour from "Simon Crean and other faceless men", it was pure theatre, but very effective.
Both times caught the prime minister on the hop – she took nearly three hours to react to Rudd’s resignation last night and then delayed her press conference this morning significantly. Little things, but demonstrative of how Rudd has made the most of his limited advantages – hit-and-run, or hit-and-fly stuff, the tactics you resort to when confronted with superior forces you don’t want to meet in pitched battle. After a day or more of the tide turning against him within the party, it was deft stuff.
But there’s no putting off a pitched battle any more, which is why Rudd’s second press conference was in essence a job application, not merely to his colleagues but to the public, and a belated effort to make Labor’s problems about more than popularity by emphasising his policy differences with the government from which he has just resigned.
Of course, that’s a little hard when the Gillard government has in essence been about implementing the remaining Rudd agenda. Rudd himself had to awkwardly negotiate climate change while listing his policy achievements, mentioning the MRET but pointedly skipping reference to a carbon price (being the thing he said he'd implement but didn't, whereas Gillard said she wouldn't implement it and then did). It was also tricky for Rudd to explain quite how he was going to be more committed to manufacturing when for months the government has been rushing headlong towards more industry support.
He invoked the Green Car program and mentioned Kim Carr, now one of his numbers men, who covers manufacturing from outside cabinet after his defenestration by Gillard.
It is, one suspects, unlikely to bring the AWU in behind him.
Ultimately the Rudd pitch is a simple one: Australia, and particularly business, needs certainty, particularly with Europe threatening another financial crisis, he’s got the track record and he can defeat Tony Abbott.
It won’t be enough. He doesn’t have the numbers now, say supporters. But the government’s parlous position complicates this enormously. We’re used to leadership challenges in majority governments. Here, there is no neat resolution, whatever government ministers might say about finalising everything with a leadership ballot. If Rudd declines to challenge, or if he loses and goes to the backbench, he will automatically be a source of instability regardless of what he does.
Even if he accepted Gillard’s challenge of renouncing the leadership if he loses, he will remain what court historians term the reversionary interest, until the party decides Gillard can’t win an election and needs a new leader. If he loses and resigns from parliament, the Coalition would be well-positioned to claim Griffith, putting Abbott within striking distance of power. And if he wins, he’ll have to nut out a deal with the independents or head for the polls.
There are no good outcomes for Labor and this won’t be resolved on Monday. It will simply shift to a new phase. The mess created by Bill Shorten, Mark Arbib, Don Farrell, David Feeney and Karl Bitar in June 2010 is so catastrophic it will take some time yet to clean up.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on February 23. Republished with permission.