War of Shakespearean proportions

Well, it's on, yes it's on;

All reason and logic are gone.

It's come to a head, no more to be said

It's sad but it's true and it's on.

Of course, there are still those who want to pretend that it isn't.

They are the one-eyed supporters of Julia Gillard who have spent the past weeks assuring us that talk of a challenge from Kevin Rudd was all in our imagination, a silly fantasy, a storm in a teacup, a media beat-up. They seemed to think that by pretending it isn't happening they could make it go away.

And now that is no longer possible, they want us to believe that even if something really is going on, it isn't serious; a minor distraction which they can easily see off. But this is precisely the kind of wishful thinking that got Labor into this mess in the first place.

What is needed now is a resolution, something that leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities; and that is not going to be easy. Indeed, given the current level of angst, it may not even be possible.

Gillard is now being urged to step down by Darren Cheesman, a humble backbencher from her home state of Victoria. Rudd is openly claiming to have rehabilitated himself in preparation for another go. And both sides are engaged in a vicious no-holds-barred campaign of leaks, smears and destabilisation. A confrontation can no longer be avoided, but even in the short term it is unlikely to bring peace in our time.

The more gung-ho of Gillard's backers are urging her to take the initiative by sacking Rudd from the ministry outright; but it is too late for that now. It might have worked if it had been done a year and a half ago, but it was then considered impractical because Rudd might resign from parliament altogether and cause a by-election in his seat of Griffith, held by about 8.5%. If that was considered risky then, it would surely be suicidal now, even with the buffer of Peter Slipper's extra vote.

But Rudd would probably not resign anyway; he and his followers would bring on a spill for the leadership, confident that even if they do not have the numbers yet, they have enough support in caucus to make a very respectable showing. Most estimates put Rudd's support at between 30 and 40, with a solid bunch of undecideds who could still be won over.

This sounds about right, given that there are 27 caucus members on margins of less than 6% who would be gone for all money on the current polling, and another 10 on less than 8% who are in serious trouble. Sure, some of these are rusted-on Gillard voters, but Rudd has his supporters among the safer seats too. And then there is the Senate, where Rudd can count on more than a handful. Gillard might win a spill, but she would be seriously wounded, and Rudd's mob would have plenty of time to regroup for another crack before the 2013 election.

And another crack there would be: Rudd, having announced his intentions, would move to the backbench to sell himself to his colleagues and to the public without inhibition or scruple. He is already viewed far more favourably than Gillard, and it is likely that the disillusionment and distaste for Gillard would only increase as a result of the fracas.

She is already highly on the nose with the punters in our home territory, northern NSW; the only politician more disliked is Tony Abbott, and a lot of voters would avoid both. Lefties would move to the Greens and disenchanted moderates to independents or even informal. Rudd could perhaps correct the drift and it is worth noting that Janelle Saffin on 4.2% in Page and Justine Elliot on 7% in Richmond are both counted in the Rudd camp.

But more importantly, there is a growing feeling in the media that a switch to Rudd before the election is inevitable; the only question left is just when it will take place. Increasingly, the reporting of the Gillard government reads like something out of the obituary pages. Commentators compete to make lists of her gaffes, her mistakes, the reasons for her demise. Only seldom do they mention the problems she has faced with a hung parliament and the legislation she has managed to negotiate through it; there is a general feeling that it was her own fault for getting herself into that situation in the first place, so she deserves little if any credit for the successes her struggles have achieved.

The general mood is now one of impatience; there has been quite enough buggerising around, it's time to clear the air. If we can't get back to proper majority government except through an election which we're not going to get and don't really want anyway, let's at least have a change of leadership and see if that helps.

But unfortunately it probably wouldn't. There would still be minority government and there would still be ongoing warfare between the Gillard gang and the Rudd mob. The loser would not retire gracefully; Rudd, as mentioned, would continue to gnaw away and Gillard's followers are already threatening terrible and untiring revenge if their leader is rolled. And what makes it worse is that both sides seriously believe they are not only the best choice, but the moral one; both feel betrayed and aggrieved. Their vendetta could well assume the dimensions of a holy war.

It is all very well for everyone from the big wigs of the business community to the foot soldiers of the party's rank and file to demand instant and conclusive action. The better-read are already chorusing with Macbeth:

"If it were to be done when 'tis done, then 'twere well

It were done quickly: if the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence and catch

With his surcease success; that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all..."

But it won't be; it seldom is. And as Macbeth discovered, the consequence, untrammelled, can be prolonged and dire. It could be a long time before the loser ends up as a head on a pole while the survivor marches off triumphantly to coronation and a long and happy reign.

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