We need to talk about Kevin

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (and, as of three days ago, foreign minister) is busy this weekend working to secure as many votes as possible in the Labor Party leadership contest on Monday morning, called by current Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week.

The latest count, as of Friday, gave Gillard about 60 supporters in the 103-member caucus to just about 30 supporters for Rudd. So why is there such remaining doubt over the contest? Allegiances can change in 48 hours, especially as regards a secret ballot.  If Rudd significantly underpeforms, it could well draw a bright line to the infighting that has plagued Labor for the past three years; if he meets or exceeds expectations, don’t believe that this is the end of it.

Somewhat extraordinarily, a sitting prime minister has called a leadership contest as a referendum about her predecessor (and not herself).

Gillard became prime minister in June 2010 when she made clear she would challenge then-Prime Minister Rudd for the leadership.  Rudd left then without a vote — 19 months and an intervening general election later (that the Gillard-led Labor Party nearly lost), Labor is now set to take that leadership vote, after weeks of briefing and counterbriefing by both the Rudd and Gillard camps.

Three considerations in particular are driving the narrative here in the face of what looks like a 2-to-1 rout against Rudd:

People power.  In a parliamentary system, it’s often the case that a party-wide primary system will result in the somewhat awkward election of a leader less popular with his own caucus than party membership. In this case, MPs have the power to choose their own leader without any input from party rank-and-file and it appears that MPs favor a leader in Gillard who is now much, much less popular with voters, both inside and outside the Labor Party. Furthermore, leading cabinet figures so disproportionately favor Gillard that it is unclear how Rudd could even form a cabinet if he somehow emerged as the new prime minister on Monday.

But the latest polls, even following Rudd’s resignation as foreign minister and Gillard’s announcement of the leadership contest, confirm a hard truth for Gillard: Labor supporters prefer Rudd as Labor party leader (even if they don’t necessarily approve of replacing Gillard), Australian voters prefer Rudd to Coalition leader Tony Abbott as prime minister by nearly 10 points, and Australian voters prefer Abbott to Gillard as prime minister by nearly 10 points. Polls also confirm that Rudd would pull Labor from a potential landslide defeat to something of a dead heat against the Coalition.

Those kinds of numbers will be hard for MPs to ignore as they cast their votes — and Rudd is making the most of it. Fortunes rise and fall precariously in polls, and Rudd has been down in the polls before, but no one can dispute that Rudd has had much more success electorally than Gillard, in both the 2007 and 2010 general elections.

Rudd (pictured above) campaigned among the public in Brisbane to a rockstar welcome Saturday, and he has asked voters to put pressure on MPs to make clear that they heed Rudd’s “people power” as well.  In his announcement Friday to contest the leadership, he plainly argued that Gillard has lost the trust of the Australian people and cannot win the next general election:

If we don’t change the Labor Party is going to end up in opposition. We will all end up on the backbench. It is time for a reality check for everybody.

Gillard has countered that leadership contests should not come down to who’s up in the polls at a given moment:

It is a choice about who’s got the strength, the temperament, the character, the courage, to lead this nation, who’s got the ability to get things done even in the face of adversity. This is not an episode of Celebrity Big Brother, this is about who should be prime minister.
Vanquishing the original sin.  With the leadership vote now announced, Gillard and her top supporters, including senior cabinet ministers, have felt justified in unleashing their “true feelings” about Rudd’s tenure as prime minister.

The line on Rudd is that he was simply dysfunctional as prime minister — too caught up on the day-to-day battles to focus on long-term progress and too imperious and dictatorial in style and personal demeanor to be an effective head of government. Furthermore, Gillard’s allies say he was the source of leaks against the government during the 2010 general election that nearly caused Labor to lose the election.

None of this is exactly a shocking revelation, but to have Gillard and other key Labor ministers speaking so bluntly about it is, in fact, a new and ugly turn of events.  Of course, if they had been upfront about Rudd’s flaws in June 2010 (versus platitudes about a good Labor government having gone in the wrong direction), Labor might not be here now: an exasperated and wounded Gillard convinced that the only way forward for a unified caucus is to bury Rudd once and for all.
Yet in announcing his support for Rudd Saturday, senior minister Anthony Albanese noted that a key consideration for his vote was that he never approved of the 2010 putsch that initially put Rudd out of office.  Rudd supporters note that Labor managed to navigate the global financial crisis of late 2008 and early 2009 fairly well.  They are also wondering loudly why Gillard and her allies are, only a year and a half later, so vocally denouncing Rudd. After all, if Rudd were such a disaster, why would Gillard have appointed him as her foreign minister following the 2010 general election?
The future.  Gillard has pledged to return to the backbench quietly if she loses the vote on Monday and Rudd has also said that he will not bring about another leadership challenge before the next general election.
But both promises are less genuine than they appear.  Gillard’s promise reflects the confident magnanimity of a prime minister who does not believe she will lose the leadership vote.  Rudd’s promise is less a pledge than a threat: “if you don’t want to lose the next election, you’d better vote for me on Monday — don’t expect a second chance.”
Unless Gillard can overperform current expectations, no one seriously one believes that Monday’s vote will put an end to the sniping. You need only look to the British equivalent of the Labor Party to see the damage that high-level feuds between two ambitious would-be prime ministers can cause (such intra-party tensions underlie the fratricide that spawned the UK Labour’s current leader, Ed Miliband).  If, as expected, Gillard wins the leadership vote and if, as polls predict, Gillard leads Labor to overwhelming defeat in the next general election, Rudd will certainly resurface with a resolute “I told you so.”

What’s so overwhelmingly self-destructive about the current Labor Party civil war is that, regardless of whomever leads Labor to the next general election, the substantive merits to a Labor victory will be overshadowed by genuine questions of whether Labor has demonstrated the maturity to be a ruling party under either Rudd or Gillard (or a third compromise candidate in the future).

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