*This article was written prior to Kevin Rudd's announcement that he would not contest the Labor Party leadership.
Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop put in sterling rhetorical performances during question time today, as they tore strips off Julia Gillard ahead of the leadership spill scheduled for 4.30pm.
With Simon Crean, widely regarded as one of the top policy minds of the ALP, sacked from his portfolio as Minister for the Regions, they had plenty of material.
Crean's portfolio was at the heart of the deal struck with independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor in 2010 to form government, and Gillard's sacking of him (she had no choice) means that the independents' support is now on thin ice for two reasons: first, they have worked closely with Crean to prioritise the regions and, second, they have indicated their deal is with Gillard, not the possible winner of this spill, Kevin Rudd.
So is this government over? It's hard to see it unfolding any other way. If Gillard wins the spill, the cancer of destabilisation will continue – not only from Rudd, but his many supporters whose rancour has only increased in recent weeks.
If Gillard loses, and Rudd takes back his old job, just watch him be torn apart by a hostile press (despite support in some quarters of the Fairfax empire) and the conga-line of Labor-quoting Coalition members who will trot out every line used against him by his own colleagues during the February 2012 spill.
Or will there be a Shorten or Combet tilt (Crean has said he won't run himself)? We have grown so used to suprises that this can't be left off the list of possibilities. But surveying the wreckage of this government, one can only wonder why they'd want to. More likely is that it will fall to one of those two men to rebuild 'New Labor' after an election wipeout, in the way Tony Blair did in the run-up to the 1997 UK election.
Julia Gillard isn't going quietly, and for that she ought to be remembered favourably by history. Speaking in strong, defiant tones during the no-confidence-motion debate during question time, she listed Labor's economic achievements – which are many – and emphasised Labor's plan to shift Australia into becoming a "high-wage, high-skill economy".
"If you make the wrong decisions, you won't get there," she thundered.
And that thought must temper the impressive performances of Abbott and Bishop. Labor has, indeed, spent more on education, training, traditional infrastructure and 'digital economy' infrastructure that the Coalition did through the Howard years. When Julie Bishop claimed so convincingly that the Australia people "have taken such a battering", it was stirring cant. Nothing more.
Not that that matters. Abbott, master of his own kind of destabilisation, is now utterly in his element. He need only to keep throwing the same punches and the Labor behemoth will go down.
From this moment in time I cannot help reflecting that it is Simon Crean who will be judged extremely harshly for precipitating this spill.
How a man of his political experience can see a positive for Labor from this process is beyond me. Had he forced the spill and declared support for Gillard, there would have been a glimmer of hope – but as he reportedly intends to vote for Rudd, what hope can there be?
Surely Crean knows that it was Rudd, through these two-and-a-half long years, that has crippled Gillard's every attempt to cut through with messages of Labor's substantial reform agenda. With just a few months real 'clear air' Labor could turn its failure to communicate into a more convincing narrative.
After this, all eyes should be on the 'New Labor' to come – after the election.