Leadership woes reveal stark choice for Labor

A Labor observer - one with the cause of the party at heart, who has watched a generation of machinations - has prepared an audit of the qualities of the actual and potential contenders for the leadership.

A Labor observer - one with the cause of the party at heart, who has watched a generation of machinations - has prepared an audit of the qualities of the actual and potential contenders for the leadership.

A LABOR observer - one with the cause of the party at heart, who has watched a generation of machinations - has prepared an audit of the qualities of the actual and potential contenders for the leadership.

His list goes well beyond Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, but, despite earlier talk of a third option, most MPs believe the battle is now down to those two - unless Gillard stood aside, then others might enter a contest with Rudd - so let's canvass just them.

Among the Gillard advantages he lists are incumbency and the support of the independents. Gillard's a fundamentally decent person, balanced and - for a PM - without excessive ego. Being a woman and determined are pluses. She won, or at least did not lose, an election; she's been competent on the world stage, especially with Barack Obama. She has empathy (though rarely letting it show).

The debits he points to include the carbon tax (''a tax, Greens policy, experience the pain without explaining the gain''), and the policy problems on gambling and refugees. She's too identified with Greens and independents. He rejects the usual proposition that she is a good negotiator because ''the agreements unravel or were not hers in the first place'', leading to broken promises and distrust. She has never run an organisation, does not have a great understanding of the economy, and is a Victorian when the great problems are Queensland and New South Wales and the growth is in Western Australia. The public have stopped listening to her. And her gender is a disadvantage as well as a positive.

Rudd's pluses include being a Queenslander, having residual public respect from when he was PM, and public sympathy because of the coup. He handled the GFC decisively, polls very well, works hard, did actually win an election and can argue he's learnt from his mistakes.

The downsides include that there would be fear of reprisals; he doesn't have a Labor Party framework but a message that's a personal, fuzzy-wuzzy mix; his ego surpasses his intellect; he is not a negotiator; he rarely listens to business and has no understanding of unions; there are hangovers from his government; his capacity to interact is forced rather than natural and the divisions within the ALP would be lasting if he became leader.

If you focus on the listed negatives of both (even disagreeing with some) you get an idea of what a dreadful world those caucus members who aren't rusted on to one side or the other are inhabiting. Gillard is electorally dead. A return to Rudd is scary.

The caucus numbers are uncertain, though leaching away from Gillard. The two camps are in a stand-off. Gillard doesn't want to risk bringing anything on. One of her supporters says: ''If he really wants it, he should challenge. It would be stupid [for Gillard to act] - she's the Prime Minister.'' The Rudd forces believe their best strategy is to let Gillard fall apart through her own mistakes. Things could blow up suddenly - as sometimes happens when the tinder's dry - or drag along.

Old hands remember the Hawke-Keating struggle, but surely this is worse, and certainly more bizarre. Labor supporters, and the rump of the ALP membership that remains must ponder and despair that the party that came to power with a good majority in 2007 has trashed itself by 2012. And during those years, these two who are now slugging it out have, in their different configurations, been at the helm.

They've been mutually disloyal. She, leaned on by factional chiefs, in jumping in to challenge after a few bad polls and ministerial anger at Rudd's dictatorial and shambling style. He, in running a (sophisticated) destabilisation campaign.

The level of the political debate is being dragged down as the opposition flays the hapless Gillard, with Liberal frontbenchers plumbing the depth of insult and invective (what adjectives would they find for a real villain?) Members of the public hate it. They blow back at the media reporting leadership conflict. But while the prime ministership is up for grabs and the party arguing about it, this story will go on.

The MPs desperately need some elder statesmen at a time like this. But John Faulkner, from the Left, the nearest the party has to a guru, is at the margins these days. The factional chiefs from the Right - notably Bill Shorten and Mark Arbib - are players who are compromised by their past, present and future ambitions.

Rudd, after campaigning in Queensland yesterday, is off to Mexico this weekend. The talking and numbers counting will continue while he's away, although with Parliament not sitting, it will be out of the limelight.

Safe to say, the Rudd forces are satisfied with this week. They have, to steal a Julia-ism, moved forward, just because the PM has been forced onto the back foot after foolishly agreeing to the Four Corners interview in which she looked shifty about her role in the coup, reviving that perennial perception that she can't be trusted.

While she's undermining herself, leaks are also painting her as panicked and catching the Rudd ''control freak'' syndrome. It was revealed that she had told ministers to get permission from her office before sitting down with newspaper editorial staff. This was seen as an anti-Rudd move. This week came the revelation that ministers were told a while ago not to take notes of cabinet discussions.

Stories abound about the positions of key individuals, and the tactics of the camps. Some Gillard supporters are frankly telling colleagues she's had it; there are suggestions coming from prime ministerial supporters that something will have to be done - but later.

Rumours circulate that Rudd has a two-stage strategy: lose the first vote, go to the backbench, then have a later strike. But this is not the preferred tactic of Rudd's backers, who worry that support for the second challenge might not materialise. (They don't rule out that there could be a de facto two-stage challenge - if Rudd simply fell short in numbers the first time.) One Rudd supporter says of the two-stage approach: ''The government is in intensive care - I don't know that it can deal with too many medical interventions''.

The opposition in Parliament made merry with Trade Minister Craig Emerson being seen with what was allegedly a list in the office of NSW backbencher Chris Hayes; Emerson was unhappy at finding himself put on the spot.

There are lighter touches. The Australian Financial Review picked up rumours late Thursday that MPs were collecting names for a petition to have a special caucus meeting; in fact, the paper reported, the backbenchers were canvassing for a parliamentary friendship group for women's maths and sciences.

One's tempted to say that MPs should get together a petition, and have that caucus meeting to settle the question. But, alas, we know a leadership tussle can resemble a fever that has to run its course - and in this case, there are no drugs to relieve the symptoms.

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