This morning the ballot for the ALP leadership overwhelmingly confirmed that the ALP want Julia Gillard to continue to be the Prime Minister to take the Labor Party to the next election. This comes after a prolonged period of terrible polling dating back almost to the August 2010 federal election where the ALP Government swiftly lost its majority after Gillard wrested the Prime Ministership.
The Prime Minister won the leadership ballot today 71 votes to 31 for Kevin Rudd, a strong victory, though one that will continue to raise questions about the ongoing unity of the Gillard Labor Government nonetheless.
The lead-up to this big day was incredibly ugly, one of the most de-stabilising times for any party in my living memory (27 years).
The ugly, strong and vitriolic words started to accelerate a week or more before the Minister for Foreign Affairs decided, at a snap press conference at 1:30am in Washington DC to resign his posting, with Simon Crean coming out and declaring open warfare on Mr Rudd.
Those hurtful and damaging words and claims only intensified after that early morning press conference which signified the likelihood of a leadership challenge being brought to the Member for Griffith. This challenge came late last week with the Prime Minister calling for a spill with the former PM on his way home to announce his future, which was always going to be a tilt at the Prime Ministership.
Simon Crean continued his strong words against the former Prime Minister with notable contributions, for all the wrong reasons from Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Nicola Roxon and others.
The Rudd camp could quickly count in its corner the likes of Kim Carr, Doug Cameron, Martin Ferguson and Robert McClelland, both of whom came out publicly and supported Mr Rudd. They were followed slowly by Chris Bowen and in an emotional weekend announcement, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese.
It was very clear, almost from the outset of the spill announcement, that the Rudd camp would struggle to get close to the numbers required to take back the leadership of the ALP Government. The Rudd camp thought that they would have around 40, but of course ended up on the comparatively low 31 votes.
So with the vote now dispensed with and the hostilities finally quelled, at least from the public view, what happens now for the Gillard Government, to borrow a phrase, in “moving forward”?
This afternoon one of the factional heavyweights, Mark Arbib resigned his post as Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Sport and as a Senator for NSW, citing the need to heal the party and also family reasons for his shock decision. This will lead to at least one new face in the Gillard ministry.
More importantly, the Government need to find a new Foreign Minister, with Craig Emerson, the Trade Minister acting in the portfolio until a replacement is announced. Dr Emerson was in the frame for the job in the wake of the Rudd resignation from the post, but you would think him acting in the portfolio means that someone else would be chosen to take on the role full-time.
I have maintained for over a week now that Simon Crean was behind the scenes angling for the job in the event of Rudd going to the back-bench or leaving the parliament altogether. I said this for dual reasons, one that Simon Crean was the first to come out strongly against Kevin Rudd for backgrounding and causing de-stabilisation and two, because Mr Crean has had a long history in parliament and was Trade Minister under Kevin Rudd in fact, a portfolio under the same department as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
On the Foreign Affairs front still, the other option being put forward in the media is for Stephen Smith to go back to the role that he held under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, though this seems unlikely as he has much work left to do in defence.
The Prime Minister will also need to work out whether she will replace any of the ministers that spoke out against her leadership and who, if any Ms Gillard would replace them with.
On that front, one Rudd backer, the Infrastructure and Transport Minister and Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese in his teary, heartfelt speech offered his resignation from the front bench which was not accepted by the Prime Minister. This signals that the Gillard Government will try to portray a sense of unity within the Government.
Other Ministers, like Robert McClelland, Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson and Kim Carr, all Rudd backers, according to some commentators, may face demotion or replacement in a reshuffle in the wake of this damaging time in the ALP. The former and the latter both faced demotion in the last ministerial reshuffle which occurred last year.
It is arguable that for the sake of maintaining the last shred of a facade of unity within the ALP caucus that Gillard should keep all of the key Rudd backers there in their respective places.
This challenge today has also shown that there is a not insubstantial percentage of the Labor caucus that think the Prime Minister is doing a bad enough job to be replaced with the peoples choice, Kevin Rudd and consequently does not shut the door on Rudd or another candidate taking the job if poor polls continue in the election year.
The damage is far from over and the Liberal/National Party Coalition will certainly be out to capitalise on all the material provided to them over the last few weeks in particular and undoubtedly events back to the successful leadership spill in 2010 and the goverment are certainly pedalling up a very steep hill indeed.
The toxicity of the Labor Party thanks largely to the leadership looks set to continue, even if some form of action is taken, whether it be a successful spill for Gillard or Rudd followed by a sacking, a pure sacking of Rudd, no action taken or if an election were called by the Prime Minister to end the pain. However, it is also worth noting it is not just the leadership and the problems are just as much about policy and promise-breaking.
The leadership tension has clearly mounted, particularly in the last two or so weeks with Ministers warning the Rudd camp and even a back-bencher, Darren Cheeseman calling for the Prime Minister to fall on her sword. A video was leaked of a sweary Kevin Rudd, doing nothing to harm his prospects of returning to the top job.
It is likely that some form of action will be taken in the near future. This will either take the form of a spill, forced by Gillard supporters, not by those who support Kevin Rudd, or the Prime Minister stoking up the courage, with an extra seat buffer, to sack Rudd and send him not to the back-bench, but back to south Brisbane for a holiday.
What is seeming less and less likely as the days go by is for Kevin Rudd to continue in his portfolio of Foreign Affairs. In my view Rudd doesn’t have the numbers to be successful, at least in the event of an initial spill, but almost certainly would have enough support to continue the terminal pain, with possibly a third or slightly more of the caucus supporting him in that event.
But the Labor Party is in a toxic position and no course of action would likely save them from electoral oblivion.
A successful spill by either Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd on its own, with the failed candidate going to the back bench is one option would provide the most longevity for the Labor Government. However, this option would also prove more toxic in the long-term with the deposed candidate, at this stage likely to be Kevin Rudd, sent to the back bench and even more free to take shots at the leadership, de-stabilising the ALP even further electorally for the next one and a bit years.
Were Rudd to be successful it is also entirely possible that there would be ructions caused by Gillard supporters which would also have the same long-term impact as allowing Kevin Rudd to stay in the parliament.
No action, it should be noted, would have the same impact on the future election prospects of the Labor Party, with Kevin Rudd and his supporters able to continue the same distractions that have plagued the Government since he lost the Prime Ministership. They would last until the next election, if a challenge were not eventually mounted, but suffer badly.
So then there is the option of sacking Kevin Rudd, not just from the Cabinet and Foreign ministry, but also from the parliament. This would provide the Gillard Government some clear with the only clear alternative to Julia Gillard not even in the room anymore.
But this action is fraught with its own danger in that it would return the Government to the position they were in last year before Peter Slipper left the Liberal Party upon becoming Speaker. Then, any small mishap or misadventure could see Labor lose office, though that seems fairly unlikely at this point.
Further, were the Government to sack Rudd from the parliament, he may then choose to leave the parliament altogether, in a final act of vengeance toward the party that cut him down in his early days. This would trigger a by-election in which it is entirely possible a Liberal Party candidate could win. In that event, the Gillard backers would have to make damn sure that Mr Rudd would remain in the parliament as an Independent MP.
The final action is for the Prime Minister to call an election and this may end up being better for the ALP in the long-term even though they would face a very heavy loss at an imminent election.
The other downside of this is that a general election would likely leave the two antagonists in the fold, with a general election unlikely to throw either of them out. The current Prime Minister would almost certainly leave the parliament after an election loss, possibly leaving it open for Rudd to take the post of Opposition Leader.
Another possible outcome would be that another member of caucus, possibly a Shorten or a Combet, less likely a Crean or a Smith would take the leadership, hopefully learning from recent history. In that case Kevin Rudd would certainly leave the parliament, triggering a by-election, again leading to a possible Liberal victory in the seat of Griffith.
It is clear to me that the least toxic option would be for a fresh election which would most likely result in either one or both of the protagonists leaving the parliament, allowing for fresh, relatively untainted leadership. There are options for longevity in a Rudd or Gillard Government with no action taken but they both are likely capped at around 12-18 months. The middle ground is to sack Rudd and at least get rid of the leadership tensions, still leaving the policy and believeability factors and returning to the very tenuous parliamentary circumstances of just a few short months ago.
The ALP have a lot to mull over in the coming days, at most weeks before deciding on a course of action. The outcome will be interesting and for them must be the good of the party over the want of the egos behind the party. I am not too sure it will end that way.