Time to call Rudd's bluff

If Anna Bligh's campaign is ravaged by a Rudd challenge, the precedent will be set for an almighty walloping of federal Labor in 2013. Sucking the poison out of the caucus now could avert that disaster.

Disregard everything Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd are saying about a looming leadership challenge from the former prime minister.

While it's true that the 'challenge' is being fuelled as much by journalists as by Rudd, both the former and current prime minister know that it's an iron law of politics that saying nothing amid such fevered speculation is a calculated act in itself.

Rudd's insistence that there is no challenge "in prospect" is, he well knows, the equivalent of shaking an upturned jerry-can over the Labor caucus.

Likewise, Gillard's dogged assertion that "I'm getting on with my job, Kevin Rudd's getting on with his" is all disingenuous nonsense – she knows the match will be lit any moment.

But should she take Peter Beattie's advice and light it herself? Maybe. The former Queensland premier has called for the matter to be put to the caucus meeting planned for next week – Tuesday, February 28 – arguing that ending the federal leadership tensions then is essential to avoiding a catastrophic result for Anna Bligh at the Queensland election on March 24.

And what goes around comes around. If Bligh cops an even worse than expected hiding because her campaign is overshadowed by the Rudd challenge, the precedent will have been set for an almighty walloping of federal Labor at a 2013 poll.

Sucking the poison out of the caucus now could avert that disaster. There is little attention being given to the fact that without the Rudd shadow, Labor's standing in the opinion polls would be several points better that the rock-bottom results we've seen for six months.

Last September, Labor's primary vote hit a desultory 26 per cent – just double the Greens' primary vote at that time – though it has crept steadily back to be 32 per cent in last week's Newspoll.

That still leaves federal Labor trailing the Coalition 45 per cent to 55 per cent in two-party-preferred terms. However there is no doubt that without months of speculation over Rudd's return, Labor's primary, and therefore two-party-preferred, polling would have been better.

Exactly how many percentage points the Rudd-factor can account for is a moot point, but given that the Greens' primary vote has hardly moved since last September, it's clear that even two or three points more primary vote would change the complexion of Labor's prospects completely.

So if Gillard does take Beattie's advice to "bring it on" (as she's fond of saying, though only to Tony Abbott), eliminating the ghost-of-PM-past would almost certainly lead to a small improvement in her polling in ensuing months.

It's true that Rudd could have won the 2010 election had the party machine-men just had a bit more faith and let the electoral cycle progress without interference. And it's equally true that with the Rudd threat neutralised, winning a 2013 election is far from impossible for Julia Gillard.

Of course, if the issue is brought to a head next Tuesday and Rudd is comprehensively seen off, Gillard would be forced to strip him of his much-loved role as foreign minister. If that happened, Rudd could well resign and force a by-election that, if lost, would eliminate the government's House of Reps majority and bring the government down.

Simon Crean, who yesterday challenged Rudd to "put up or shut up", said of the prospect of Rudd resigning to trigger a by-election: "I don't think any loyal person would trigger a by-election knowingly. No loyal person would knowingly put the party in that position."

And what part of Kevin Rudd's recent actions could be described as loyal to the ALP?

One Labor insider told me yesterday (through a torrent of expletives that would make even Rudd blush) that Gillard should call Rudd's bluff – sack him from cabinet and leave him to make his own decisions on the backbench.

The big danger then would not be his resignation, but what sensitive information about the Gillard cabinet could mysteriously trickle out to the media at the next election, as it did at the last. Nothing to do with Rudd, of course.

And if he did resign? My sources tell me there's one loyal Labor figure who's both angry enough at the leaking that took place during the last federal election, and high-stature enough to win Rudd's electorate for Labor at a by-election. None other that Peter Beattie.

Perhaps Julia should take Peter's advice after all.

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