If Kevin Rudd were to wrest the prime ministership back from Julia Gillard, this week might be seen as a tipping point.
After looking nearly dead at the start of the year, Rudd’s bid has revived on the back of the impression of government "chaos” that quickly took hold, following Gillard's missteps and the coincidence of Craig Thomson’s arrest. "Chaos” was a beat-up, but it was the perception which soon came through in the Coalition’s research.
The damage has been deepened by the revelation of just how badly the new mining tax has performed in its first six months, with figures showing it raised only $126 million from July to December, indicating it hasn’t the slightest hope of yielding the $2 billion that had been estimated for the whole of 2012-13.
In parliament, Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan were on the rack all week over the tax, the final shape of which was hammered out with mining giants BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata immediately after the coup that deposed Rudd.
The miners, who had the new Gillard-Swan leadership team where they wanted them, extracted the best possible deal. Along the way, the government agreed to compensate them for any increase in state royalties; ever since, it has been trying to browbeat or cajole the states to stop such hikes.
The government blames a fall in commodity prices and the high dollar for the low collection, but the critics point to the political expediency which drove the tax’s design.
When Rudd chose to enter the debate on Tuesday, the critics got a big boost. He pointedly said he did not know the terms of the deal Swan and Gillard had reached. There was a further blow for the government in a Senate estimates hearing yesterday when Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, quizzed on the forecasting error, pointed to what Treasury had not been able to see – notably the starting cost that firms were able to pick for depreciation – rather than blaming changes in commodity prices.
Rudd knew that by speaking out publicly, targeting Swan and Gillard for the difficulties in the mining tax and highlighting their deal with the companies, he was directly undermining the leadership.
While Rudd does not have the numbers in caucus, this week has seen more conversations about the state of play. People are observing Simon Crean, a year ago one of Rudd's harshest critics. He was forced to insist nothing should be made of his dining with the former prime minister and his supporters on Wednesday. Just a get together for former attorney-general Robert McClelland, he said. (McClelland, dumped from the ministry by Gillard, retires at the election.) No doubt. But Crean was keeping interesting company.
Vital in what happens on the leadership will be Workplace Minister Bill Shorten, from the Victorian Right, and Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler, from the Left. Shorten influences a cluster of votes and Butler a handful. Shorten was one of those behind the 2010 coup, and is now being watched with eagle eyes by colleagues. If these two moved, it would quickly have a domino effect. So far, they remain with Gillard.
In the Rudd camp, various scenarios are canvassed, and different timeframes, between mid March and late June (on Gillard’s calendar, the last sitting of this parliament). In reality the Rudd forces have little control over timing or process. Rudd has said he won’t challenge. It would send the wrong message to the public – already cynical about untrustworthy politicians – to go back on that pledge. If she holds her nerve this gives the prime minister a strong advantage.
Rudd has to rely on bad polls coming and caucus members eventually panicking. His supporters must be careful in counting and canvassing; they also know, from experience last year, that promises of support can fall away at crunch time.
Rudd himself is a wild card. While some backers want him to take a lower profile, he is no mood to do so. He has the demeanour of the king in exile, bent on recapturing the throne. As a former prime minister, he has no intention of being silenced. Then there is the adrenaline. A danger is that all this could alienate rather than attract those colleagues who need to be won over.
Gillard’s toughness is legendary. She doesn’t flinch under enormous pressure. No one believes she would stand aside. And she is tactically canny and ruthless – a year ago the Gillard forces pushed Rudd into a premature challenge to rout him.
Labor MPs with seats at risk are living a double nightmare: the fear of political demise combined with trying to decide the best shot for saving some of their skins. They are alarmed by the electoral feedback on Gillard. The polling is turning down again; Essential this week saw her approval falling from 41 per cent in January to 36 per cent this month. They are holding their breath for the coming round of Nielsen and Newspoll.
Yet many of them hate Rudd, can’t bear the thought of what they would have to go through to install him, and don’t know what would happen if they did.
A restored Rudd would give Labor a sugar hit in the electorate, but how long would it last? His best hope probably would be to get the leadership in June and go to the people quickly (not that this worked too well for Gillard). There’d be the drag of internal schisms (with possible leaks like those from his camp in 2010). He’d have to cope with the New South Wales corruption inquiry stench – by casting himself as committed to reforming Labor.
Rudd’s best pitch, however, could go along these lines: "You know me – you’ve seen me in government. I was the guy who guided us through the global financial crisis (and I really have learnt lessons from those things we messed up along the way, like pink batts). You don’t know Tony Abbott. He’s scary. He’d be dangerous on the economy; can’t be believed even if he has a mild industrial relations policy; is unconvincing when he claims to have modern attitudes on women. Don’t risk the unknown. I’m Kevin. And by the way, if you’re in a Queensland marginal seat, remember I’m from Brissie.”
It might not win an election but it would be a narrative.
Michelle Grattan is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra.
This story first appeared on The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.