And so, with Kevin Rudd's formal decision to challenge for Labor Party leadership, each side continues and deepens its tactics. The challenger, returning to Australia like an exiled prince, calls for a people's revolt to restore him to the throne taken from him by sinister court plotters. The incumbent, with vast resources at its disposal, continues blasting away at him with everything it's got. Having failed to stop him yet with massed artillery fire, the Gillard camp's answer has been to order up more guns.
There's plenty of collateral damage from the massed fire. Cabinet confidentiality under Julia Gillard has now gone by the board – at least confidentiality for the Kevin Rudd era. It's been abandoned in the government's quest for anything that can do damage to Rudd, so now examples of his poor judgement and bad management are coming from the likes of Nicola Roxon.
Once again, you wonder how on earth these people tolerated Rudd for five minutes let alone two and a half years if he was so awful. Why did they sit there so supinely?
To reinforce their battering, ministers, starting with Tony Burke, are declaring they won't play any more if they lose on Monday. "Shock and awe" indeed.
Rudd has shown two can play at that game, for the first time today confirming the long-reported claim that Gillard had agreed on the night of June 23 not to challenge but then reneged. Key lieutenants Kim Carr, Robert McClelland and Martin Ferguson have shown far more judgment in declining to return fire.
Leadership spills are always conducted with ferocity, but no party has ever torn up the rule book in the way Labor is now doing. For the current cabinet, there is now a precedent for ministers to go public on cabinet discussions when they're unhappy with an outcome. And the precedent has been set by a range of ministers, right up to Julia Gillard herself.
Rudd, with limited resources and having begun with hit-and-run tactics, feints and surprise attacks, has continued in similar mode. He seemed on the verge of telling voters to storm MPs' offices and demand they vote for him, in a sort of Australian Spring in which the Faceless Men would be overthrown by a popular revolution and a new order of people power installed in Canberra.
Needless to say, Rudd's embrace of this insurrectionary role – Che Kevara – is more than a little convenient. The man who was the most control freakish, centralised, command-and-control prime minister in Australia's history only discovered the virtues of party reform and people power once he'd been done over by the factional bosses who'd installed him in the first place.
This is a party imploding. The word is used carefully: Labor's internal weaknesses, its ideological drift, its lack of core values, the devolution of the factions in mechanisms for distributing patronage, its reluctance to publicly argue over important issues – the hollowing out of a once vibrant, reformist institution, is causing Labor to cave in on itself.
You can see from the inability of either side to distinguish itself from the other: Rudd struggles to name key differences beyond not being satisfied with Gillard's unambitious health reform package, tax reform for small business (Edmund Barton being the last prime minister who didn't promise that) and yet more help for manufacturing.
The Gillard camp can only posture as some sort of good process obsessives and lament that Rudd had profound managerial flaws, sounding like the bureaucracy-minded managerialists and technocrats that is all they now aspire to be.
For all that Labor MPs and supporters fear this is ripping the party, perhaps it's for the best. They can start to replace the rotten structure that's falling around them.
That's a long-term task, but they'll probably have time for it. On current polling, they'll suffer the sort of defeat likely to leave them out of office for two terms. Something to consider at 10.30 on Monday when they find that Labor's biggest problem, Julia Gillard, remains prime minister.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on February 24. Republished with permission.