'It was a fiasco. Rudd's sergeants and lieutenants frantically sought votes. A detached Rudd sat calmly in his office signing cards to his constituents.'

The seeds of Kevin Rudd's departure from politics this week were sown when his bid to regain leadership of the party was lost in 2012. The Saturday Age reveals Rudd's - and the party's - undoing in the first of a five-part series.

When Simon Crean detonated his political career standing next to the fortified citadel of the Julia Gillard prime ministership in March, it was supposed to blast a breach in the wall for Kevin Rudd. Rudd was supposed to lead his insurgents through the gap to seize control of the government. But while the breach was real and Gillard opened a ballot for her job, Rudd's forces were too few. Instead, he scoffed privately at the former Labor leader as "suicide Simon", walked away from the breach and promised afresh that he would never again seek to challenge Gillard.

"He reneged on our deal, it was gutless," was Crean's contemptuous assessment as Gillard sacked him from her cabinet.

It was the lowest point of Rudd's three-year campaign to recover the prime ministership.

Even some of his most ardent supporters had abandoned hope.

His wife, Therese Rein, was urging him to get out of the political abattoir known as the Labor caucus. They sold their Canberra house.

His numbers man, Chris Bowen, so despaired of the restoration project that he threw out the notes he'd drafted for himself in preparation for taking the post of treasurer in a Rudd government.

Even Rudd had moments where he'd turn to one of his closest followers and say, "I think this is done". Julia Gillard was weak in the opinion polls but strong among the Labor caucus. The polls would prove her ultimate undoing, but for now she was immovable.

After Rudd's failed challenge in February 2012 and the farcical non-challenge galvanised by Crean in March 2013, Rudd started to arrange his life after politics.

He returned to his first love, foreign affairs. He started approaching US think tanks and Chinese universities for assignments. In Washington, he sounded out the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. In Beijing, Tsingshua University took him on as visiting lecturer. He wrote essays on how to improve Sino-American relations. In secret, he immersed himself in the delicate task of building personal trust between China's new leader, Xi Jinping, and Barack Obama, two men he knew well.

The Labor Party head office, responsible for planning a campaign for the election due in September, also wrote off Rudd at this point. Reluctantly, it gave up any ideas of the aggressive campaign it might have fought with him as leader.

The national secretary, George Wright, was a neutral in the civil war between Gillard and Rudd and he worked closely with the prime minister. But the party machine had to be realistic. Wright and his staff resigned themselves to a defensive effort. Party polling indicated the loss of as many as 25 of the party's 71 seats in the House of Representatives.

Head office set about planning to try to minimise the losses. It planned a TV ad campaign that, remarkably, would likely include no images of the prime minister. The Liberals' ad campaign minimised appearances by Tony Abbott, an unpopular opposition leader. But it was a measure of Gillard's deep unpopularity with the people that she might be omitted entirely from Labor's ads.

The crashed Crean bid to topple Gillard was Labor at its most abject because it had been long planned yet utterly botched; it exposed a crisis of confidence in the prime minister yet also the impotence of her challenger; it faced an imminent election, yet its disunity was aiding its enemy.

Crean, one of the most experienced politicians in the Parliament, says his aim was to break the stalemate. He said Rudd was urging him to confront Gillard and demand her resignation. Rudd told Crean "you have to be part of a delegation" of cabinet ministers to insist on her resignation.

Rudd left the detailed planning to Crean and his trusted lieutenant, Chris Bowen. "Should it be me, or should it be a group that goes to her? This was the hard thing," says Crean.

"People's names were being thrown around. You ask further, and you find they support the change of leadership, but they don't want to be part of a group. This was the Bob Carr thing."

Bob Carr, Gillard's foreign minister, was senior statesman of his faction, the NSW Right. He had repeatedly denounced the prime minister to factional colleagues as a leader who had "lost the plot" and was leading the government to defeat. He was counted as a firm vote for Rudd. The NSW Right faction had led Gillard's original insurgency against Rudd in 2010 under the generalship of Mark Arbib. Now it was committed to reversing the transaction. Of the faction's 18 members, it counted a solid 12 for Rudd. The NSW general secretary, Sam Dastyari, was committed to the challenge. They looked to Carr.

The former NSW premier recoiled from joining Crean in a delegation. He planned a trip to Washington for the crucial week and had scheduled a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"Bob, we might need you to stay" to support the Rudd challenge, Chris Bowen told him. "I can't stay!" came Carr's baritone expostulation. "I'm meeting John Kerry! I can't stay!"

When The Age/Nielsen poll on Monday, March 18, found Labor's primary vote to be at 31 per cent, the pollster, John Stirton, summed up the result: "Labor's vote has stabilised at levels that would see the government defeated in 1975 landslide proportions."

The news galvanised the challenge. The Rudd group had been cultivating a Gillard supporter and a key factional figure in the Left, Mark Butler, minister for mental health and ageing.

Rudd's circle now wanted to announce the news that he'd suffered a crisis of confidence in Gillard. Butler agreed, but was nervous. The NSW Right offered him some company. Bob Carr would also go public.

The faction co-ordinated with Carr, now in Washington. Dastyari spoke to him and they agreed on the words Carr would use. This newspaper reported on the Tuesday that the two were reconsidering their support for Gillard.

But when Carr received a call from the prime minister's office, his will wilted. He appeared before the media to insist that he was "loyal to Julia Gillard". Joel Fitzgibbon, the government whip as well as an avid Rudd supporter, reported the news to colleagues: "Bob's f---ed up big time." Butler tweeted his loyalty to the prime minister and went into hiding.

The comedy of errors compounded. Crean confronted Gillard alone on Wednesday night. She stared him down. The problem, she told him, was not her. It was the destabilisation.

Crean wanted to know what to do next. On Thursday, Bowen told Crean that a leadership spill had to happen by the end of the week or it would not happen at all. Parliament was about to break for six weeks and return for the federal budget and the opportunity would be lost.

Crean said to Bowen: "The judgment you've made, does everyone in your tactics group agree with it?" Bowen answered "yes".

After a false start, Crean "pushed the button", publicly calling on Gillard to step down. A media storm broke. Waiting quietly, unread in his mobile phone sitting on his office desk, was a text message from Rudd telling him not to act.

"I hadn't read the text," Crean says. "I'm not supposed to be sitting there waiting for missives from Kevin, which, as always from Kevin, have double entendres - triple, quadruples, he doesn't even know what they are half the time."

It was a fiasco. Rudd's sergeants and lieutenants frantically sought votes. A detached Rudd sat calmly in his office signing cards to his constituents. He took the advice of supporters that his bid was doomed and declined to run. Gillard put the prime ministership to a vote, but there was no challenger.

A Rudd activist and Gillard's minister for human services, Kim Carr, publicly gave credit to the would-be circuit-breaker. "Simon Crean did a very courageous thing, but no one followed him." Crean gave Rudd none: "He was urging people to go over the barricades for him, and him running the other way."

In the caucus the Gillard group was triumphant and driving home its advantage. She may have been destined for defeat at the election due in six months, but she was going to do it her way.

A roll-call of Labor royalty, ministers who'd been covert Rudd supporters, stepped forward to be drummed out of high office after the failed coup: Martin Ferguson, Kim Carr, Chris Bowen, all followed Crean to the backbench. Lesser personages, whips and parliamentary secretaries, joined them: Joel Fitzgibbon, Richard Marles, Ed Husic, Janelle Saffin.

One senior minister with divided loyalties, Anthony Albanese, remained. In a remarkable piece of political diplomacy, "Albo" was publicly pledged to Rudd, yet was retained in the cabinet. As Gillard's manager of government business in the House, he was indispensable to her successful command of the House. As a sworn Rudd lieutenant, he was invaluable as a source of intelligence to the insurgent.

The leadership had been settled "for all time", Gillard declared. Acrimony crackled and flared through the Labor ecosystem. The wedding of two Gillard government staff members became a venue for angry recriminations.

Amid the green rolling hills that ripple inland from the NSW coastal retreat of Byron Bay, one of Gillard's press secretaries, Laura Anderson, married Wayne Swan's chief of staff, Jim Chalmers.

The prime minister, the treasurer and dozens of other political luminaries were there. It was the weekend after Crean's detonation. "It was the who's who in the world of Julia and Wayne," said one guest, "the ultimate Julia clique."

At Gurragawee, an elegant, white Queenslander home on a hill, guests mingled on a lawn. One guest, the general secretary of NSW Labor and now a senator, Sam Dastyari, found himself to be in a small minority - a Rudd supporter.

Swan confronted Dastyari amid the wedding guests and savaged him: "You don't know Kevin - he's a treacherous, evil c---. He wants to destroy me, he wants to destroy us, he hates our party, he hates our movement, and you are there supporting this guy."

Dastyari recalled the incident vividly. He later remarked to colleagues: "They thought they'd won forever. This was in your face. 'I'm going to put you in your place kiddo.' It was pretty full-on in the middle of a wedding."

Swan, however, says he has no recollection of making these remarks.

Dastyari represented the will of most of the NSW Labor MPs; Swan the majority of its Queensland MPs in this argument.

But that wasn't the end.

He soon found himself under attack from another Gillard mainstay and an old friend of his, the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes.

Dastyari held one of the most powerful organisational posts in the Labor Party. The seating plan originally had him seated at Gillard's table under the spreading marquee. He found himself shifted. The prime minister shunned him.

At one point, Gillard, Swan and Penny Wong disappeared into a private room to discuss the new ministry that Gillard was crafting post-Crean.

Most guests thoroughly enjoyed the celebration, yet the charm of the acoustic guitars and frangipanis had to compete with a seething rancour, an angry triumphalism and a sense of impending electoral doom.

The MC introduced himself as Anthony Chisholm, the Queensland secretary of the Labor Party, "but I've started to do weddings as a fallback".

It's tempting to see the wedding as a metaphor. Labor's return to power should have been a happy time of achievement. Yet it was an occasion for division and bitter recrimination.

Rudd and Gillard were each angry and bitter towards the other. After she tore him down, Rudd had trouble even speaking her name. His standard epithet for Gillard in private was "the bitch".

For her part, Gillard was dismissive of the achievements of Rudd's prime ministership and privately spoke of "Rudd's shit iceberg", the burden of policy and political problems that he had left behind, only partly visible to the public.

In the four years they worked as a tight team, the pair was formidable. "The public respected him, and the party loved her," writes Bruce Hawker, the man Rudd appointed Labor campaign director for the 2013 election.

"He could woo the electorate and she could pull the caucus in behind him. They were the yin and the yang of the Labor Party. Together, they were indomitable, but apart they were vulnerable: he to the faction leaders and she to public opinion."

As Dastyari's experience illustrated, Labor was riven with divisions, like a broken mirror. State was pitted against state, NSW against Queensland and Victoria; the union arm of the NSW party was pitted against the organisational and parliamentary arms.

The deep division over leadership was a fissure that ran through the middle of almost every debate, every faction, every friendship, threatening to become a chasm to swallow the Labor government. And that's eventually what happened.

After just two terms, Labor faced defeat at the hands of an unpopular opposition leader.

The Hawke and Keating governments kept Labor in power for 13 years and Howard ruled for nearly 12. Rudd and Gillard managed only half as long in spite of uninterrupted economic growth. It was a signal failure of the Labor movement.

As George Wright concluded in his post-election analysis delivered to the National Press Club: "Where the problems for the Labor Party started was when we removed our first-term prime minister, whatever the details of our incapacity to get over that, the truth is we never did.

"Labor's history of infighting in office left us unworthy of re-election in the minds of too many voters."

The wedding as metaphor for Labor in power is flawed because it had a unifying act at its centre; Labor in government had an irreparable act of rupture at its centre.

The Gillard partnership with Rudd was not constructed on friendship or any existing trust - the pair were wary rivals in caucus until Kim Carr brokered talks between them in 2006. It was based on mutual convenience. Both craved the leadership and a big figure was in their way - Kim Beazley, then opposition leader.

"She had no particular regard for him," Beazley says. "They were not really collaborative in a policy sense, or with any mutual fondness. She was of the Left, had the Left's support. Kevin had votes from the Right, the centre, and one or two others.

"I was always thoroughly aware that I was a minority leader," with about 40 per cent of the caucus behind him, Beazley says. Gillard enjoyed another 40 per cent and Rudd the remaining 20 per cent. "While ever it was split like that, I was secure.

"I just had to take the risk that Kevin and Julia wouldn't get together."

They did, secretly, waiting until the conditions were ripe for a challenge to Beazley.

They managed to work out an order of precedence, for Rudd to be leader and Gillard deputy, without any rancour. Gillard had the superior claim to the top job based on her support in the caucus. But she put aside her political vanity and personal ego. She judged Rudd to be readier.

"He was ready to go; he was the best prospect," Gillard said in 2008. "He had that connection, you know - that bit of special connection with the electorate that you need."

So from the beginning, Rudd led at Gillard's pleasure. He knew it. So long as they were in agreement, the partnership thrived. Together they defeated the Howard government and confronted the global financial crisis.

As Paul Keating said in his tribute this week, the Rudd government "saved Australia from the fate of every other industrial economy - a deep and prolonged recession. If his government had been elected for no other reason but to have achieved this, it would have achieved much: an instance of international exceptionalism."

But it was the competence of the implementation of the Rudd-Gillard economic stimulus that also gave the opposition its first real win over their government.

The package kept hundreds of thousands of Australians employed, according to the Treasury, but it was also the source of the "pink batts and overpriced school halls" taunt that Abbott rejoiced in.

In the public mind, these details came to be the dominant motif of the stimulus package. Why was the government unable to win due credit for staving off recession? "I'm not sure we were the best salespeople," says Bill Shorten, the new Labor leader.

It's hard to prove a counterfactual argument to something that never happened, the recession we didn't have to have. "And it's the way we communicate - you can talk about too many things; we wanted to reform too many things" at once, Shorten says.

It was also the first clear public sign of what was to become a recurring theme of the Rudd prime ministership; good ideas executed shoddily. As Rudd himself would remark to colleagues: "We are policy rich and execution poor."

The pair could not have known then that carbon emissions was the policy issue that, more than any other, would ultimately destroy both Rudd and Gillard.

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