So who is the winner from this morning’s unedifying events?
Kevin Rudd hasn’t merely lost, he has failed to establish himself as the looming replacement for Julia Gillard. The result isn’t a humiliation for the former prime minister, but it’s getting close. The remorseless assault on his reputation launched by the Gillard camp has damaged him greatly, and possibly terminally. He now goes to the back bench knowing his base for any further bids for the leadership is small and his opponents are prepared to do pretty much anything to stop him.
And Gillard? There's an old Cold War propaganda story about Pravda covering a two-man race between a Soviet and an American athlete; when the American wins, Pravda reports that the Soviet athlete came second and the American second last. That’s Gillard: she has clobbered Rudd, but she’s only come second last. Today’s polls confirm how much she is distrusted and disliked by the electorate, in a way no amount of invocation of tough decisions or complaints of destabilisation (or laments about misogynist journalists) will repair.
But her problems run much deeper than polling. Her regular misjudgments have led her into this mess; indeed, they’re the reason there was even a contest.
And for all the talk that Gillard has had her reputation enhanced by the events of the last week, try telling voters that. All they'll see is a leader adept at internal politicking, accomplished in the sort of dark arts that got her the top job in the first place (and which, it shouldn’t be forgotten, got Rudd the top job as well). But the real dark arts needed by Gillard are the sort that involve a satanic ritual that could somehow transfer Rudd’s popularity into her.
The only winner in Labor is one of Stephen Smith, Bill Shorten or, just maybe, Simon ('safe pair of hands') Crean, who will emerge to replace Gillard later in the year, probably in a contest with a damaged Rudd, after Gillard’s political car-wreck of a prime ministership is brought to an end by party powerbrokers.
Today’s vote gives that person time to position themselves for life-post-Gillard, in a way that, had this contest not been brought on so early in the year, would likely have prevented them from doing so against Rudd. It gives the factional bosses time to arrange a succession. The anyone-but-Rudd camp has benefited greatly from events moving more rapidly than anyone expected.
In the interim, there’ll be much talk of how Gillard and her advisers plan to launch a recovery – specifically by focusing on economic management. That, you’ll recall, was Plan A, before the leadership issue blew up. Now it’s Plan B, with no evidence that the skill and smarts to implement it have yet arrived when they were so manifestly missing hitherto. And not when voters regard Gillard with such cold disdain, and when they’ve had their hopes raised by the leadership contest of an escape from the two least-popular leaders of recent memory, Gillard and Abbott.
Whether the Gillard camp seriously believes this stuff about Rudd being the source of all of the government’s problem isn’t clear. But they’ve acted as if it’s true, pulverising Rudd with what, in the olden days before last Wednesday, were known as cabinet leaks but which are now a sort of water cannon aimed at Rudd and his supporters. If they've succeeded in terminally damaging Rudd, at least Gillard’s wrecking crew can console themselves in opposition with the thought that they brought Rudd down with them, along with what’s left of the party.
It’s pro forma to insist that Tony Abbott has significantly benefited. But there isn't a whole lot more to be gained for the opposition leader: he’s already in a strong position and he already has Gillard’s measure, despite being even less liked than her. This perpetuates the status quo, which is fine for him but doesn’t really change much. Indeed, despite his strong position, some independents still talk about wanting to deal with Malcolm Turnbull to help form a Coalition government.
The spectacle that Labor has made of itself lately can only encourage the sense that anyone who can bring an end to the Gillard-Abbott era would be welcome.
So today marks, to yet again steal a much-stolen phrase, the end of the beginning. For those sick of leadership speculation, the coming months will doubtless continue the slow burn of frustration. But blame Labor: today is a pit stop on the journey to the end of Gillard's prime ministership, as if the party decided to pause on its way and try to end the chances of Rudd as well, the one MP in the party who on current form can prevent a wipeout come the next election.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on February 27. Republished with permission.