The ghost of Rudd looms large

Julia Gillard used to be a school teacher, which is probably why she recalled her class of 2012 a day early for what amounted to a pep talk and a spot of bonding. It was billed as an ideas fest, where the bright-eyed backbenchers (if there are any left) could air their thoughts for the forthcoming year, providing the government with input and involvement. But since Gillard had rather pre-empted the brainstorming by announcing that she already knew exactly what was to happen during the next 12 months, and that her program was firm and irrevocable, the ambitions of any aspiring innovators must have been stillborn.

Indeed, it was all a bit reminiscent of another more elaborate occasion convened by Kevin Rudd in 2008: the Australia 2020 Summit. More than 1000 of the nation's best and brightest gathered in Canberra for two days in April to generate some 900 ideas for the country to push forward in the following 12 years. A few, a very few, which just happened to coincide with Rudd's own agenda were enthusiastically adopted; the remainder, after due consideration, were humanely dispatched. At least this time Gillard hardly bothered with the charade that they would be taken seriously.

Rudd himself was of course not present at Sunday's bunfight, but it is safe to say that his ghost, like that of Banquo, hovered over the proceedings nonetheless. And unless and until it is laid to rest, the Labor caucus and especially those backbenchers in marginal seats (which these days means anything held by less than about 10%) are going to find it hard to concentrate on anything else.

Last week Simon Crean made a bid at exorcism: Kevin Rudd, he declared, would never lead the Labor party again. Well, he may be right; certainly there is a hard core who would rather elect Craig Thomson to the leadership than give it back to Rudd. But that does not mean that all of them - even the ones in safe seats - are rusted on Gillard supporters. They are staring at disaster, and ready to embrace anyone - well, almost anyone - who can offer even a glimmer of hope.

And realistically, Rudd is the only alternative. The other names thrown up by members of the Anyone-but-Rudd brigade include Stephen Smith, Greg Combet, Bill Shorten and Crean himself. The first three are generational rivals for the job, each of whom would oppose the other two in a hopelessly split vote, and Crean, discarded in 2003, could only ever be considered as a stop gap, and a pretty unattractive one at that. And the bottom line is that the polls, which are the force driving the whole push for change, show that all four of them are even less popular with the voters than Gillard.

It remains a two person contest, in which each of the rivals suffers from an almost terminal disadvantage: neither can unite the party, and while the split remains, the punters are most unlikely to vote for it. The only real solution is for one or the other of them to simply withdraw from the contest; but since this is not going to happen, the caucus finds itself in the position which, in chess, is called 'zugswang': whatever the next move is, it can only make things worse.

At the moment the embattled members seem to be relying more on magic than politics: during Sunday's marathon gathering, the name of Kevin Rudd was not mentioned. Apparently the idea was that if he was not invoked, perhaps he would disappear.

Caucus tried exactly the same formula back in the 1950s, when the followers of the hapless and doomed Doc Evatt banned the name of the great enemy, Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, from the party room. It didn't work then and it won't work now.

This does not mean that the current spat will lead to another great split; it is about personalities, not ideology, and is more akin to the long drawn- out feud between John Howard and Andrew Peacock which hamstrung the Liberals for much of the 80s than to the apocalyptic battles of the cold war. But both disputes made their respective parties effectively unelectable for a long time and, if history is not to repeat itself, Labor will have to resolve its current crisis at least soon enough for it to be ancient history by the time of a 2013 poll.

The problem is that no one appears to be in a hurry to do so. Rudd is clearly not preparing for an immediate challenge; in a caucus of 103 he needs at least 40 definite votes to keep him in the game and he does not yet have them. But Gillard is neither brave nor strong enough for a pre-emptive strike, so the stand off continues as a war of leaks, propaganda and misinformation, assuring the ever-hungry media of plenty of raw material to keep the story running.

It cannot be dismissed, as Gillard and her supporters seek to, as a beat up, as mere chatter; the polls alone would see to that. They consistently show that Rudd leads Gillard by a wide margin among the general public (although not, interestingly, among Labor voters - but then, those that are left would continue to vote Labor if the party was led by Attila the Hun). But they do not measure the chaos which another leadership coup would unleash.

Some commentators now regard the return of Rudd as inevitable; under Gillard Labor is doomed, and eventually the desperate backbenchers will hold their noses and embrace Rudd as their only hope of survival. But this analysis overlooks the party's genius for avoiding hard decisions, or at least postponing them until it is too late.

And of course, there is always the hope of a miracle. After all, Tony Abbott is campaigning for government on the promise that he can conjure $40 billion out of thin air, and provide pie in the sky thereafter. It's not only Labor that believes in magic.

"a war of leaks, propaganda and misinformation, assuring the ever-hungry media of plenty of raw material to

keep the story running."

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