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View from The Hill

All that trouble for a phantom challenge

Kevin Rudd announced that he would not be challenging for the prime ministership. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Labor party this week has given the impression of losing its collective mind.

The Rudd forces over-reached as they tried to get a leadership change before Parliament adjourned for a seven week pre-budget break.

But despite frenetic activity, they were not able to muster the numbers. Instead of installing an electorally more attractive leader, the result of the destabilisation has been that Kevin Rudd has been burned and the government looks a shambles.

Simon Crean was the scout who threw the grenade. But the general declined to leave the tent, because the army lacked enough ammunition to deliver victory. Rudd wanted, and needed, a draft. But anyone who knows Gillard - and all the Labor MPs do – must be aware she would always stand and fight. The lady is no Ted Baillieu.

Rudd certainly did not intend to be bested again in a head-to-head contest with Gillard. Apart from that, breaking his “no challenge” pledge would shred his credibility. But he can’t have things both ways: he should have reined in his feral supporters.

Apart from Rudd, the huge loser has been Crean. Gillard has sacked him from her frontbench, a deep humiliation for a former leader in the latter stage of his career.

Crean’s behaviour looks totally odd. At his initial mid-morning doorstop he called for the Rudd forces to back off, while indicating Gillard should lift her game. This was despite having already put Gillard on notice.

By lunchtime he was demanding Gillard call a spill, and saying he would stand for deputy leader (which of course he didn’t when it came to the point, even though the deputyship was declared open at the caucus meeting).

There are other casualties. Parliamentary secretary Richard Marles, who spoke out for Rudd, has resigned his position, while Rudd numbers man and chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon will have to do so as well.

For the second time in little more than a year, Gillard has seen off a Rudd push, and her superior command of tactics helped her do that (as well as many MPs’ hatred of Rudd). By calling the 4.30 pm meeting she gave Rudd and his followers virtually no time to do any last-minute lobbying when caucus members were focused on the potential choice.

Her ability to hang on is all the more remarkable given Labor’s appalling polls, her own bad ratings and the continued high level of Rudd’s popularity in the community.

She was also able to stare down the Rudd forces despite the collapse of her media reform proposals, an extraordinary exercise in how to botch the presentation of a policy that, in terms of substance, had some merit.

In the House of Representatives and before the caucus meeting, the PM survived an attempt by the opposition to get a censure motion on the go. But this was only because the vote needed an absolute majority - 76. She lost the vote on a simple majority, 71-73, with crossbenchers Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie voting with the opposition.

In the court of public opinion, the day’s events will simply add to the no confidence vote that the community is sending all the time through the opinion polls.

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