KEY independent Tony Windsor has fired a warning shot across Kevin Rudd's bows, saying there would and probably should be a quick election if Labor changes leaders.
Mr Windsor said last night that if Labor went into meltdown over its leadership, it might be time "that the Australian people are asked to make a decision", rather than the independents renegotiating with the new PM.
Both Mr Windsor and fellow country independent Rob Oakeshott are strongly backing Ms Gillard, complicating the push from Mr Rudd, who has suffered a setback with yesterday's Age/Nielsen poll boosting the Prime Minister's stocks. The minority Labor government depends on their support. Both revealed they had been sounded out last year about a change of Labor leader.
Mr Oakeshott, asked on Sky whether Mr Rudd or any of his supporters had spoken to him about a leadership change, replied "Yes, at different times", canvassing where he would go "only in very general terms". Later he told The Age he did not think the sounding out was from "Rudd's praetorian guard".
Mr Windsor said he had had a contact from someone outside Parliament, probably 12 months ago, who was touting for Mr Rudd. "But that died within days and I think this one has as well," he told the ABC.
The Gillard forces were relieved by yesterday's Age/Nielsen poll showing Labor's primary vote rising to 33 per cent, and Ms Gillard ahead of Tony Abbott as preferred PM for the first time in nine months. The polling has calmed the caucus for the moment.
The Rudd camp insisted Ms Gillard's poll boost was unlikely to give her a longer term reprieve unless there was unanticipated continued improvement. The talk now is that any move would wait until after the March 24 Queensland election.
Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor differed on whether a change to Mr Rudd would mean a quick election. While Mr Windsor predicted that it would, he also insisted the change would not happen.
He would not see himself throwing his support behind Tony Abbott if things did change. "But maybe if this thing becomes a real loose cannon, a meltdown, then maybe that's time the Australian people are asked to make a decision, rather than try to renegotiate another package and arrangement," he said. "That's not to say that parties don't have the right to change their leadership but they can't expect the status quo to remain in terms of the crossbench."
Mr Oakeshott said he believed the Parliament would work through any change. Mr Oakeshott, who has said all bets would be off if Labor dumped Ms Gillard, said Mr Rudd had left Ms Gillard to negotiate with the independents on Labor's behalf after the election "and should be bound by that handshake as much as she is". The "handshake" covered the deal for a stable Parliament and an election late next year.
Ms Gillard brushed off questioning about the poll but repeated that the election would be next year a timetable that Mr Rudd also now favours if he became leader. "We do have a lot of hard work to do and if we do that hard work, I believe we can win the election when it's held in 2013", she said.