Late last year, former Prime Minister Paul Keating attended a major business dinner and told those who were listening that Julia Gillard "had not enough stagecraft skill to get herself out of this hole”.
I must emphasise that I was not at the dinner but I quote from an indirect source because Keating got it right. When you think about the Keating conclusion (made well before the current crisis), suddenly the current events make a lot more sense.
In contrast to Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd has excellent stagecraft, which helps explain his personal popularity. In the latest battle he timed his resignation as Foreign Minister for the 6pm TV news. It was brilliant stagecraft.
But during his term as prime minister, Rudd could not efficiently run a cabinet meeting and the business of government. The vast majority of the current cabinet suffered through the Rudd chaos (which is why he lost his job) and do not want to do it again. Wayne Swan as Treasurer went through a nightmare because of Rudd’s shortcomings in running the government. That’s why he has been so outspoken in the leadership battle and backed Gillard to the hilt.
In contrast to Rudd, Julia Gillard is excellent at running a cabinet. The public might not like her but she has deep support from most cabinet ministers, although Martin Ferguson is a notable exception. Conversely she has limited stagecraft to woo public opinion.
Most back benchers do not have a very rewarding life in Canberra and it's all about holding their seat. They have no first hand experience of what it’s like to work as a minister in a chaotic cabinet. But they understand Rudd has stagecraft and therefore has a better chance of enabling them to hold their seat.
Rudd will be phoning these back benchers (particularly those in Queensland) pointing out he is the only hope they have to hold their seats.
Bob Hawke had the combination of stagecraft and the ability to run a cabinet, although towards the end he became tired. Paul Keating had lots of stagecraft and while he was a brilliant Treasurer he was not as good as Hawke at running a cabinet. But he was far better than Rudd. Howard was very good at running a cabinet and, in his own way, had stagecraft but was nowhere near as good as Keating or Rudd.
To be a successful prime minister in the current environment you need to have both skills. It’s ironic that the strengths of Gillard are the weakness of Rudd and vice versa.