ON Monday night, 725,000 television viewers enjoyed the rare opportunity of watching the strategies of a former prime minister who wants his old job back and the current Prime Minister, desperate to thwart him, being played out in real time.
Kevin Rudd appeared in overlay footage on the ABC's Four Corners program about the Labor leadership but refused to give an interview. Julia Gillard, ever mindful of Rudd's desire for restoration, agreed to a sit-down interview.
Their choices stayed true to their respective strategies. Rudd decided last year that Gillard was so accident prone and unsuited to be prime minister that all he needed to do was say little publicly and wait for her to fall over. Gillard prefers action. She reorganised her frontbench in December to send a shot across Rudd's bows.
More recently, she rearranged the seating plan in the cabinet room to push the Foreign Minister a bit further away and banned ministers - for whom, read Rudd - from meeting newspaper editors. And she tried to get out in front of him again by giving the interview to Four Corners.
That final choice worked out badly for the Prime Minister. Gillard does not deserve any criticism for making herself available for the interview. But it is fair to judge her by her answers.
On the question of when she knew about polling specially commissioned before the June 2010 putsch that showed high ratings for her and rapidly declining support for Rudd, she was evasive. The polling was used to diminish caucus support for Rudd as prime minister. It was crucial to helping Gillard realise her life's ambition, achieved by taking the extraordinary step of challenging and humiliating a prime minister less than three years after he had led their party into office. And she says she can't recall that particular bit of polling.
Gillard was similarly evasive in response to the revelation that her staff started writing a victory speech two weeks before she told Rudd she wanted a leadership vote in the caucus.
Her responses were a lawyer's calibrated responses: I see a lot of polling; there might have been a speech but I did not commission it; I only decided to run for the leadership on the day I issued the formal challenge. They were truthful in the technical sense but they were not the full story. Her colleagues know it and a lot of them were talking about it yesterday.
On the face of it, Rudd's strategy of allowing events and what his supporters describe as the Prime Minister's flawed judgment to return him to the leadership is working. For the sake of argument, let's assume Rudd will succeed.
Will it be worth the trouble? There's plenty of evidence that a lot of voters are unhappy with the continued reporting of the leadership cold war between Gillard and Rudd. Some believe it to be a concoction, a non-story. Others are simply tired of the game-playing.
Then there are a whole lot of other voters - the polls suggest a solid majority - who just want the government to go away. It probably wouldn't matter to them who led the ALP, they wouldn't vote for it.
The battle between Gillard and Rudd is real, the position of prime minister is at stake, and it would be derelict of the media not to cover the manoeuvrings. But the public is right to resent the high-powered soap opera.
The most disconcerting element of the Four Corners report was its focus on the dysfunctional condition of the party that is entrusted with governing the country. The special polling that Gillard cannot remember, but plenty of MPs can recall being shown several days before she became leader, was not paid for by the ALP's national office. So who paid for it? Who footed the bill for research that was used to tip out a prime minister?
Then there's the involvement of people from outside the parliamentary party. Former senator Graham Richardson, a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments, told the program that he had played a small role in Rudd's defenestration by brokering a rapprochement between warring tendencies within the party's right wing. Under Richardson's aegis, the squabbling groups found common cause in Rudd's ouster.
Similarly, Queenslander and ex-Keating government minister Con Sciacca told Four Corners he had been "making phone calls" against Rudd, too. There is an issue of accountability here. Sciacca left Parliament at the 2004 election. Richardson left the Senate in 1994.
There they were, with their shoulders to the wheel, working from outside the caucus, not accountable to the public in the way that MPs are, to install a new prime minister.
When people say they don't know what Labor stands for, despite the government's list of legislative achievements, they are talking about the pursuit of internal power, the endless jockeying, seemingly for its own sake.
The animosity towards Rudd within some sections of the caucus, and among influential factional players and several leading union officials, will not recede should he succeed Gillard. The anti-Rudd argument is not about policy, it is about personality and influence.
Rudd is much more popular than Gillard, but Labor itself has been egregiously, perhaps fatally, contaminated by the broader enmities and indulgences that have driven the leadership contest for almost two years.
Shaun Carney is an Age associate editor.
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