No one seems to accept this as a possibility yet but Labor may well have won the next election today. Everyone does agree the Federal Government has been through the most extraordinary two weeks of bloodletting – not so much airing its dirty linen in public as proudly wearing it at a fancy dress party. From Simon Crean’s early promptings, to the mysterious airing of Rudd’s sweary video, the revelations of the Four Corners program of what Gillard did and did not know, Rudd’s overseas midnight resignation, the ferocious response of Government Ministers and Gillard’s ultimate triumph today, it has been gifted wrapped coverage for our media. Hundreds of journalists were in Canberra today for the vote which was a foregone conclusion. Yet not one of them picked up in advance the biggest story of the day – the resignation of Mark Arbib. It was this action as much as anything that shows the length Labor may be prepared to go to kill the leadership debate and end what Gilard herself called the political drama.
Along with fellow minister Bill Shorten, Arbib was behind that drama. He was the ultimate face of the faceless men who deposed Rudd in 2010. With senior minister Nicola Roxon admitting on the weekend she was unaware of the impending coup, it was Arbib and Shorten who Rudd would have considered the backstabbers-in-chief. Given he has not forgiven the party for his sacking, it is not beyond the possibility Rudd demanded a faceless head as his price for supporting Gillard post ballot. Certainly Arbib’s confusing resignation statement hinted there was something a lot stronger at issue than the “family reasons” offered as the main cause. And as a Senator he could leave without Labor facing a by-election.
Meanwhile Kevin Rudd seemed at ease after the ballot today. Perhaps he has exorcised some of the demons of his 2010 defeat which occurred without a ballot. The initial reports were he had just 29 supporters in caucus but it was soon revised to 71-31. This was a margin that seem to please everyone in Government. Gillard was handsomely re-elected with over a two to one majority. Meanwhile Rudd was not disgraced (those two missing votes getting him into the respectable thirties) without getting the 40 or so votes he needed for the legitimacy of a second challenge. His speech afterwards was both valedictory and apologetic. He stood up for a belief in his achievements but acknowledged others saw it differently. Most importantly he saw the need to commit to Gillard for the life of her Government, effectively ending his leadership challenge until either she resigns or is beaten at the polls.
This was also a coded message to the media: he was off the drip. With no other senior minister with a serious axe to grind, there should be few further leaks of the kind that has destabilised the Gillard regime from the moment it took office. The media will keep Rudd on the preferred prime minister poll question as they do Malcolm Turnbull. But just as they do now with Turnbull, Rudd leadership stories will run short of juice without a quote from a “Senior Government Minister”.
The similarities with Turnbull extend beyond this. Both men are brilliant intellectuals but brittle and difficult to work with. Both have probably burned their bridges with their caucus colleagues and may have to set up a third (or fourth) party if they are to ever re-establish their leadership credentials. Rudd in particular is damaged goods. The Australian hailed him as Labor’s best hope to defeat the Coalition in 2013, but his clear lead in the preferred prime minister stakes was in stark contrast to the respect in which he was held by the vast majority of caucus members.
It is the difference between having to vote for him and having to work for him. Rudd has mastered a media image of the socially incompetent nerd. It doesn’t appear to matter to voters he hasn’t a shred of genuineness in him as long as he is there with that smile to crash or crash through any awkwardness. Behind the scenes, other parts of his personality were free to do their ugly work far from public prying. 24 x 7’s Kevin’s obsessive desire for control, glass jaw and an enormous untrammelled ego led to an unhealthy work environment that any self-respecting OH&S officer would complain about.
While the self-styled “K Rudd” now sits chastened on the naughty back bench, Prime Minister Gillard seemed positively ebullient post-ballot. The all-out attack strategy was risky but necessary to kill off her challenger. She has given Abbott his election ads but they will probably be lost anyway in a bland stew of negative messages. She also fended off Abbott’s Question Time attack today with ease making him look like a carping yesterday’s man while she was the forward looking leader. Such decisiveness may not last but it at least she can now attack without having to protect her flanks.
These two weeks told us where the corpses are buried but so far the public is not bothered by the macabre spectacle. Indeed Labor got its best result in 12 months in the latest Newspoll today. The two party preferred is 53-47 to the Coalition which is in the margin of error for 50-50. It seems the punters don’t seem to mind the blood-bath when they can see exactly who is throwing the punches. It is also a reminder of the old mantra when it comes to a vote “It’s The Economy, Stupid”. The Coalition remains all over the place in its economic policy in a time when Australia is in a relatively good position. Abbott's policy-free zone was a safe bet only as long as Labor people continued killing each other. Gillard's win may not yet have given her clear air, but the fog of war just got a little less dense.