Grattan on Friday: Another week of agony for a dithering Labor caucus

Julia Gillard is facing a testing final sitting week before the election. AAP/Lukas Coch

Julia Gillard likes to ham it up when she addresses the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery ball. She’s good at it too. So much so that Tony Abbott doesn’t even try to compete.

At Wednesday night’s function, packed with jaded MPs, media, and lobbyists eager to make or schmooze contacts, Gillard was feisty, ending a series of sharply-targeted barbs with some “celebrity advice” from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2: “It’s not ‘hasta la vista, baby’ - it’s ‘I’ll be back’”.

Labor’s leadership crisis hung over the function - the jokes, the atmosphere. Senior Labor figures were subdued, depressed. When Bob Downe (aka Mark Trevorrow) arrived at Kevin Rudd’s table, the man of the moment had already made his exit.

With one of the two final sitting weeks now over, the tension, already near unbearable, can only heighten.

Two or three days ago, word went out from the Rudd camp: “not this week”. With Gillard dug in and Rudd wanting to return to the leadership as he had left it – without a ballot – the impasse continued. There were claims Rudd had the numbers, or that he almost had them, or that he would have them in a vote.

A battle raged about union support. It was said Gillard had lost the backing of the powerful Australian Workers’ Union. ACTU polling showing a prospective Labor wipeout was leaked.

Yesterday AWU chief Paul Howes, a player in the 2010 coup, launched a strong defence of Gillard, telling Sky: “Our union’s position has been crystal clear since 2010. It hasn’t changed one iota. We believe in the Gillard government. … The movement remains united behind the Prime Minister’s leadership.”

Howes did say the AWU did not direct MPs how to vote on leadership. Rudd supporters said that was the important thing out of his comments. Precisely what this means in the current situation isn’t obvious – AWU-associated members have fallen in line in the past.

The government’s operations ground on in this surreal world. Gillard announced she will go to Indonesia when parliament rises. This is for the regular leadership dialogue but it was immediately interpreted as a dash to try to stem the boat flow. The fire hose was deployed to dampen expectations of what would come out of the meeting.

But will Gillard still be PM when the trip comes around? (Parallels abound in this saga - Rudd was deposed just as he was about to go off to a G20 meeting.) Would Rudd make the trip if he became leader or would he be too busy with other things?

In the Rudd bunker, some backers are urging him to bring on a challenge (or have a supporter do so). But Rudd is said to be continuing to insist he wants a smooth transition.

One scenario being talked about is that Gillard is tapped on the shoulder late next week. Gillard is committed to toughing things out but how she would react in practice is less clear. Assuming she stayed firm, would she call a ballot and stand? Or refuse to call one, forcing her opponents to petition for it?

(The Gillard forces counter talk about a delegation with the suggestion there should be one to Rudd, to tell him to stop destabilising.)

If there was a ballot and Gillard lost where would things go then?

It’s not so simple with a hung parliament.

The Rudd forces want to leave any move as late as possible because if the House (due to rise on Thursday) was still sitting the opposition would finally have cause to move that no confidence motion it talked about but then had to put aside.

The agreements the key country independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have are with Gillard, rather than with the government. The Rudd forces assume that when push came to shove they would not vote to install Tony Abbott, and so a no confidence motion would not be carried.

But they would prefer not to test their faith.

If the change came just as the parliament broke up, and therefore there was no opportunity to test confidence, what would Gillard advise the Governor-General?

Her choices would be (1) to advise Quentin Byrce to send for Rudd, or (2) to ask for an election, with Gillard herself still as caretaker PM. It is impossible to think Gillard would contemplate the latter, which would be flouting the democratic will of the Labor party.

So while there are exotic constitutional possibilities the reality would be almost certainly more prosaic.

Even so, the situation could get messy, including for the Governor-General.

Anne Twomey, professor of constitutional law at Sydney University, says if Rudd displaced Gillard and was appointed PM by Quentin Byrce, the big question would be whether the GG would seek an assurance from him that he would advise an immediate dissolution of parliament for an August election or ask him to recall parliament to test the House’s confidence in him.

If Bryce required the former it would reduce Rudd’s flexibility; if she required the latter it would be a complication for him just as he was battling to get his campaign on track.

On the other hand, says Twomey, Bryce might just decide that an election was so close anyway - September 14 on Gillard’s timetable, and Rudd would be unlikely to go later - that it didn’t matter.

The issue for Bryce would be, Twomey says, “how constitutionally offensive” it was for Rudd to be PM for a month or so (prior to the caretaker period) without an opportunity to test the House’s confidence in him.

How this amazing story will end has become no easier to read in the past few days … but surely by next Friday we should have an answer. Either nothing will have changed, or the whole federal political battle will have been transformed.