Labor's politics of the jugular

The fight to the political death between Hawke and Keating was somehow tame, or almost gentlemanly, when compared with the contest between Rudd and Gillard.

The fight to the political death between Hawke and Keating was somehow tame, or almost gentlemanly, when compared with the contest between Rudd and Gillard.

WHEN Paul Keating decided to tear down Bob Hawke, a young Kevin Rudd had a ringside seat. By a quirk of fate, he was inside the prime minister's office 21 years ago when the then treasurer arrived unannounced to declare his intentions to Hawke before he told the world.

Back then, Rudd was chief of staff to the then Queensland premier, Wayne Goss. They were meeting Hawke with Bill Ludwig, the heavyweight of the Australian Workers Union, to discuss the end of logging on Fraser Island when Keating interrupted. ''Oh, you're having a meeting, are you?'' he asked, feigning innocence.

Sensing the treasurer had something important, and private, to tell Hawke, the visitors left the room for long enough for Keating to tell Hawke he was, in his parlance, going for him. When the treasurer left, the meeting resumed as if all was well. The only hint of the impending storm was when Hawke took a phone call and doubled over behind his desk to ensure his whispered words were not heard by his guests.

It was the start of one of the most bruising chapters in Labor's 120-year history - a fight to the political death between two Labor giants. But, for all the emotion, intensity and drama, it was somehow tame, or almost gentlemanly, when compared with the contest between Rudd and Julia Gillard.

When, for instance, the first caucus meeting to decide between Hawke and Keating was adjourned on a Friday, to resume three days later, the two men attended a premiers' conference as a double act and worked effectively together.

This contest is different because both candidates are not simply saying they are the best person to lead the Labor Party they are asserting that the other is not worthy of holding the nation's highest office. Gillard accuses Rudd of paralysing the government when he was prime minister and sabotaging it when he was removed. He counters that she has neither the trust nor the confidence of the people.

The most remarkable aspect of this schism - arguably the biggest in the Labor Party since in 1954 - is the extent to which it is self-induced and personality-based. It isn't rooted in ideology, or policy, of factions and it certainly is not propelled by the opposition.

This contest is also different because of the massive chasm that exists between the public perception of the contenders and the way they are seen by their colleagues. ''Canberra loves Gillard and hates Rudd Australia hates Gillard and loves Rudd,'' is how one insider simplistically puts it.

Little wonder, then, that team Rudd wants to unlock People Power by urging ordinary Australians to pressure their Labor MPs to support him on Monday - and to remind Australians of the destructive power of the ''faceless men'' and of how Gillard swore she would not challenge before she tore him down and, most recently, how she reneged on a last-minute undertaking to work through the problems that were crippling the government in mid-2010 before she cut him down. Little wonder, too, that Gillard insists this is not an ''episode of Celebrity Big Brother'', but a question of who has ''the temperament, the character and the courage to lead this nation''. When Rudd asserts that the issue is one of trust, she accuses him of a prolonged campaign to undermine her leadership while he was a member of her cabinet.

There's another thing, too, that sets this contest apart from those of the past. The prize. Many of the 103 Labor MPs who will gather on Monday accept that the combatants are fighting for the right to lead Labor to certain defeat, whenever the next election is held. As they see it, to the winner will go responsibility for handing government to Tony Abbott, the man Rudd yesterday dubbed ''the most negative force'' Australian politics has seen.

If the decision for Labor MPs is about who the polls say gives Labor its best prospect of minimising the loss, or pulling off an improbable victory, the answer is Rudd. It has been for months and it is likely to be for months to come, assuming Gillard has an emphatic victory. But this is a contest that defies objective analysis. Today's Age-Nielsen Poll shows Labor with a primary vote of 34 per cent and Gillard with a disapproval rating of 60. Some 58 per cent of voters prefer Rudd as Labor leader, compared with 34 per cent for Gillard. Significantly, though, voters are split on whether Labor should change leaders.

''The simple mathematics of it make it absolutely inevitable,'' is how one Labor veteran puts it. ''They are going to change to Rudd, despite all the angst and storm and dread that will create. End of story.''

The only problem with this assertion is that it is rejected by a majority of Labor MPs, who have already backed him, with reluctance, on the basis that he could deliver them government in 2007. If it was purely a numbers game, they say, the push to bring back Rudd would have gathered momentum long ago.

''What has changed since the first time around is that the caucus has experienced Kevin at close range in the ultimate position of authority, at the peak of his powers,'' says one well-placed source. ''They've all copped a tongue-lashing from him and they've got a more informed view about life with Kevin than they had before.''

Indeed, many MPs would rather go down with Gillard as PM than take their chances by returning to Rudd.

Until this week, the complaints about Rudd's management style and treatment of colleagues tended to be voiced without attribution, though they were on the public record. Not any more. Now the scathing critiques voiced by Rudd's cabinet colleagues are backed by the assessment of James Button, a man without a mean-spirited bone in his body, who worked as one of Rudd's speechwriters for seven months.

He writes today that Rudd was impossible to work with regularly treated his staff, public servants and backbenchers with rudeness and contempt made crushing demands without giving thanks, or even using what was produced and froze out those who dared speak up.

It is an understatement to say that Mark Latham has tended not to represent the view of his former colleagues since his spectacular departure from the leadership after the 2004 election, but he reflected the majority view recently when he wrote: ''When Rudd famously told Labor's national conference that his name was Kevin and he was there to help, he meant help himself.''

Among the Rudd questions for the MPs who will vote on Monday are these: Is this the whole story? Has Rudd changed? And, does any of this matter if he is able to deliver?

Anthony Byrne is the Labor MP for the outer south-eastern seat of Holt and he shared a flat with Rudd for more than two years before Rudd became PM. ''I never found him to be the person others have described,'' he tells The Saturday Age. ''We never had a harsh word.''

How do you reconcile the two Kevins? Perhaps by accepting that there are two Kevins. One is the highly intelligent, prodigious worker who can, on one level, be engaging, likeable, affable and a loyal friend (and flatmate). The other is the self-absorbed, self-believer who somehow missed out in the empathy department and, instead, developed a sadistic streak that asserts itself when he demands staff or bureaucrats work through the night to produce work he does not read. Has he changed? Almost certainly. As Byrne says: ''You can't be crucified in front of your family and the entire nation and not learn some pretty important lessons.''

Not surprisingly, Alan Griffin, the Victorian MP most identified with the push to restore Rudd, agrees. ''The experience of political leaders in Australia generally is that, when they have come back for a second time, they have been better,'' he says. ''Howard Mark II was better than Howard Mark I. Menzies the same. Beazley Mark II was better than Beazley Mark I, [though] it was just the wrong time.

''Is he still going to be over-the-top, working punishing hours, etc, etc? Yeah, I think he will be to a degree, but it's hopefully in the context of having a better insight into what is needed to be effective.''

Asked to nominate the Rudd qualities that attracted his support, he says: ''A combination of things: intellectual rigour, a capacity for original thought, a capacity to connect with the Australian people and to punch through with a message, and a work ethic that even I find frightening. You always know he's giving you 110 per cent.''

The most important of the Rudd questions is whether he is capable of restoring Labor's primary vote to competitive territory, and here the evidence is mixed, though there is little doubt that a re-elected Rudd would dramatically improve Labor's stocks in his home state.

An analysis of 500 talkback calls and a 10 per cent sample of 5000 online comments this week by Sentia Media found Gillard slightly in front on talkback and Rudd just ahead online. The exception was Brisbane, where Rudd was well in front. Rudd's popularity in his home state was underscored when Keating addressed a sell-out crowd at a recent fund-raiser in Brisbane. Every time he mentioned Rudd's name, sustained applause followed.

"If Kevin Rudd returns to the ALP leadership on Monday, he will give the ALP a reasonable boost in the polls,'' predicts Nielsen's John Stirton. ''What is much less certain is how long this boost would last. Labor's primary vote has been in the high 20s or low 30s for more than a year and it is not just Gillard, but the government itself, that is deeply unpopular.

''If Gillard retains the leadership she will need to be given at least six months of clear air to rebuild Labor's credibility. If Rudd wins on Monday, Labor's best option would be to go to an election sooner rather than later and hope the boost that Rudd gives will last. In any event, the Coalition remain favourites to win the election whenever it is held."

Certainly, there are many unknowns if Rudd gets another chance. How many cabinet ministers will join Nicola Roxon and not serve in a Rudd cabinet? How many crossbenchers will support him? Would he use the uncertainty of minority government to justify an earlier election, and so minimise the prospects of the government imploding?

Then there is the host of policy challenges that arise from his statements in the past couple of days, including the carbon tax and the Malaysian people swap.

The biggest challenge, however, would be to address the problem his administration shared with the one that followed - inept political management that meant genuine achievements such as managing the global financial crisis did not translate into public support.

For the caucus, there is less to ponder about Gillard. She gets a tick on consultation, consideration and courage. She gets credit for getting the carbon price and the mining tax and other contentious measures through the Parliament and for managing minority government. But some of her political judgments still confound.

Her pitch is that she has the character, the temperament and the courage to get things done and the fervent hope of her supporters is that an emphatic win on Monday will be the making of her - that she will be given credit for confronting and defeating the man who has been stalking her and, if the show unites behind her, be able to begin the long road back to competitiveness.

If she is lucky, she will be given the chance to try.

If the hard heads are right and the polls don't improve, Rudd will be watching from the backbench, waiting for caucus to forgive and forget and turn to him, not because they want to do it, but out of sheer desperation.

Michael Gordon is national editor.

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