The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has thrown down the gauntlet to Kevin Rudd, challenging him to fight her for the Labor Party leadership and top political office in a ballot next Monday.
Ms Gillard laid her job on the line after Mr Rudd, whom she deposed in mid-2010, resigned as foreign minister and declared his former deputy incapable of winning another election. And with the long-simmering enmity between the pair finally out in the open, senior ministers lined up yesterday to stick the knife in.
Although Mr Rudd has yet to declare himself a candidate in the leadership ballot, few doubt that he will run. And while the Prime Minister is believed to be well ahead in numbers – the pair are vying for the votes of 103 Labor MPs and senators – her predecessor, who is considerably more popular with voters, is attempting to harness “people power”.
As Mr Rudd flew home yesterday from Washington, where he announced his shock resignation, his wife, Therese Rein, and daughter, Jessica Rudd, urged voters to make themselves heard. “Tweet something,” said Ms Rudd. “Rant on Facebook. Put a video on YouTube ... Have a chat with your neighbour. Tell your friends. Email your local MP … Call your local radio station.”
Several ministers declared their support for Mr Rudd but they were outnumbered by former colleagues who had harsh words about his character, leadership style and record in government. Mr Rudd made many enemies during his nearly three years as prime minister.
He and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, were once good friends. Yesterday Mr Swan called him “deeply flawed”. He added: “The party has given Kevin Rudd all the opportunities in the world, and he wasted them with his dysfunctional decision-making and his deeply demeaning attitude towards other people.”
After months of denying any ill-feeling between her and Mr Rudd, Ms Gillard – liberated by the eruption of hostilities into the open – also let swing. She accused him of sabotating the 2010 election campaign, which saw her struggle to regain power, and of waging a “long-running destabilisation campaign”.
She also, for the first time, hinted at the reasons why she deposed him in a lightning coup. The government, she said, had become paralysed, with Mr Rudd – who “always had very difficult and very chaotic work patterns” – focused on “the next news cycle, the next picture opportunity”.
The spectacle of Labor imploding has filled the conservative opposition, which is far ahead in the opinion polls, with glee. “I’ve never witnessed, and I’m sure nobody else has witnessed, the kind of vitriol and animosity that’s pouring out of senior cabinet ministers against each other,” said Julie Bishop, the deputy Liberal Party leader.
It seems unlikely that Mr Rudd will manage to dislodge the Prime Minister on Monday. Already there is talk of a “two-step” strategy that would see him lose the ballot, take his place on the backbenches, then plot another challenge at a more propitious moment. The strategy worked for the former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who ousted Bob Hawke in 1991.
This time round, Mr Rudd’s best hope lies in appealing to the self-interest of MPs, particularly those in marginal electorates. For, as Peter Hartcher, political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote yesterday, dozens of them “face an electoral wipe-out under Gillard”.
Ultimately, Mr Hartcher noted, “the question for MPs will be one that millions of Australian workers face daily: would I rather keep my job under a boss I don’t like, or face unemployment?”