Rudd's democratic pitch valiant but desperate

Kevin Rudd's formal leadership challenge speech offered a seductive but profoundly delusional and dangerous vision of Australian democracy.

Kevin Rudd was utterly convincing in his press conference yesterday. Like many across the nation I felt my heart swell with pride as he promised to hand democracy back to the Australian people, once he's wrested it from the hands of Labor's evil faceless men. All great stuff until you remember you're not watching one of the grand orations in an episode of the West Wing.

This is real life and Rudd's speech yesterday, stirring as it was, was utter K-rap.

His main message to voters – and to nervous caucus members contemplating what they'll do for a living once their marginal electorates fall to the Coalition – is that it's the Australian people who choose the leader of the parliamentary party, not the parliamentary party. Wrong – though there is merit in his idea of making caucus votes a secret ballot rather than having factional heavies peering over MPs shoulders, as he put it.

But as a question of democracy, in our party-based parliamentary system there is absolutely nothing undemocratic about the parliamentary party chucking out a leader it's had enough of. The only reason this is not done routinely is that it comes with a huge political risk – the possibility of a hit in the opinion polls, from which the new leader must arduously climb back.

That would not be the prospect facing Rudd now, of course. As returning leader he would get a big poll bounce – and that's the only reason intelligent, senior figures like Kim Carr and Martin Ferguson can back Rudd's return. They want the poll bounce, and are prepared to put up with Rudd again to get it.

Let's not forget, however, that that is exactly what Gillard delivered to the ALP when she took the reins in June 2010. Labor's primary vote shot from 35 per cent to 42 per cent overnight. A great start for Australia's first female prime minister – itself a wildcard factor in the risky coup orchestrated by Right faction 'faceless men'.

And why did that not last? Was it, as Rudd suggested yesterday, just Gillard's lack of ability in communicating Labor's bold reforms – carbon pricing, the mining tax, health reform, the NBN? If communication was the only problem, the polls would have sunk more gradually. As it was, the primary vote slumped back to 37 per cent just a fortnight later following the first of a series of damaging leaks during the hurriedly called election campaign.

Those leaks to Channel Nine's Laurie Oakes are now widely believed to have come from Kevin Rudd, and Gillard drove that point home yesterday by arguing that those leaks were only the beginning of the "price I shouldn't have to pay... being dragged down by somebody on your own side".

That is the key to the whole debate. It might be hypothetical to discuss what Gillard's polling might have looked like without Rudd's spoiling campaign going on the background, but the party now has a chance to remove the Rudd threat "once and for all", as Gillard put it yesterday, and find out exactly what the polls would look like without the ever present threat of yet another coup.

That is the best course for Australia, and the business community, regardless of who one wishes to see as PM after the next election (Rudd is toying with our prosperity, February 23).

Because even in yesterday's valiant, if somewhat desperate, speech from Rudd is a stark reminder of why the term 'the Rudd threat' is far from hyperbole.

When asked about carbon pricing, Rudd said: "On the question of action on climate change... I've always supported a price on carbon. My position has never changed. I support a price on carbon and I've been working for the earliest possible transition to an emissions trading scheme and a floating price."

Nothing new there, but when asked if he'd change the three year fixed-term price for carbon he said: "I think it's important to look carefully at how the implementation of the current tax goes in its first six months."

King Rudd would reopen negotiations on the carbon price, and most likely everything else including the mining tax once he was back on the throne (Why BHP is in Rudd's crosshairs, February 14).

This is a preposterous idea. Getting any carbon pricing through both houses of parliament was a major feat of negotiation by Julia Gillard – and even those who oppose the carbon tax should remember that all through the committee process that designed the tax/ETS package, the Greens lobbied vigorously for a much higher price. Gillard delivered the compromise that neither Rudd nor Bob Brown could reach during the two attempts to get the CPRS package through parliament.

Further, Brown reminded journalists on Thursday of Rudd's negotiating style during the CPRS debacle, saying "remember in the preceding 14 months [before Gillard took the leadership] I was not able to get in a conversation with Kevin".

Senator Christine Milne hit back shortly after Rudd's speech yesterday: "Mr Rudd should realise that, not only is a fixed price period designed to give business much greater confidence and certainty, and to provide time for the Climate Change Authority to develop its five year carbon budgets, but that it is the result of an enormous amount of work and good faith negotiation by many people.

"A review within six months is an unworkable timeframe as it is far too soon to give a proper picture of how the scheme is working. But it also jeopardises the whole scheme by giving Tony Abbott much more influence over climate policy again before the community has a chance to see how it works."

Rudd's comments on climate change reveal the extent to which he imagines he will retake autocratic control of the Labor cabinet – Kevin Rudd decides that one of the hardest fought battles of the Gillard prime ministership needs to be refought, oblivious to the fact that the Greens would block the destruction of the current carbon pricing package at every step.

That's desperation from Rudd. It also demonstrates a profound delusion about what democracy really is.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter

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