Amid reports of arm-twisting by party apparatchiks and threats of retribution, Australian Labor MPs are consulting their consciences – and, in many cases, contemplating their wafer-thin majorities – as they ponder whether to support Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd in a leadership ballot on Monday.
Latest estimates put the Prime Minister ahead by a margin of two to one, with only a handful of votes undecided. But with two days to go and the highest of stakes to play for, both she and Mr Rudd, along with their backers, will be frantically working the phones this weekend.
A difficult choice faces MPs: stick with a leader whom they, for the most part, like, but who is deeply unpopular with voters, or reinstate a leader whom they, for the most part, detest, but who has wide public appeal.
The contest – all about personality and power – has people glued to their television screens. No matter that Ms Gillard protes\ted yesterday that “this is not an episode of Celebrity Big Brother”. As entertainment it can’t be beaten, and on Monday morning Australians will have to choose between the ballot and live coverage of the Oscars, screening simultaneously.
Mr Rudd threw his hat in the ring yesterday, but in reality he has been campaigning ever since he resigned as foreign minister on Wednesday. He wanted to “finish the job the Australian people elected me to do when I was elected by them to become prime minister”, he declared in Brisbane, his home city.
That job was rudely interrupted in June 2010, when Ms Gillard overthrew him, with the near unanimous support of her Labor colleagues. The toxic repercussions of that act – and the events that preceded it – continued to spill out yesterday, as the pair and their supporters traded blame and invective.
Ms Gillard accused Mr Rudd of spending time “behind closed doors, in secret conversations with people, undermining this government”. Mr Rudd, who has taken to referring to himself in the third person, ridiculed the insults heaped on him, which suggested, he said, that “Kevin Rudd is the Antichrist incorporated, and if not the son of Satan, at least the grandson of Satan”.
He also expressed concern at reports that intimidatory tactics were being used by party powerbrokers, with backbenchers threatened with de-selection if they voted against Ms Gillard. “That is just un-Australian,” he said. For Mr Rudd, this is a grudge match. Indeed, the Australian media has dubbed it “Kevenge”. Even if he is defeated, as expected, on Monday, he is unlikely to go quietly. He may challenge again from the backbenches before long, particularly if he loses by a respectable margin.
Whatever the outcome of the ballot, the government – which has a majority of just one seat – appears to be doomed. Under Ms Gillard, it has no hope of winning an election, according to poll after poll. Under Mr Rudd, it could be deserted by its cross-bench supporters, and would then collapse. And if he decides to quit parliament, which is not inconceivable, Labor would almost certainly lose government. No wonder a senior Gillard backer told The Australian yesterday that “our strategy is to kill him for once and for all”.