Michelle Grattan: Rudd wins game of thrones

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The smiles from Gillard have gone, now Kevin Rudd's battle for the Australian Labor party leadership has been won. Photo / AP
The smiles from Gillard have gone, now Kevin Rudd's battle for the Australian Labor party leadership has been won. Photo / AP

Labor has finally made the decision it ought to have taken long ago, but the counter-revolution has been extremely bloody and there are bodies all over the place.

Not only is there a new Prime Minister but a new deputy PM (Anthony Albanese), and a new Senate leadership combination (Penny Wong, Jacinta Collins).

Six cabinet ministers have quit the frontbench - Wayne Swan, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Peter Garrett, Craig Emerson and Joe Ludwig. Garrett and Emerson will resign from Parliament at the election, as will Julia Gillard, who pledged before the ballot to go if she lost.

Rudd has been restored to the leadership three years to the week after he was pushed out.

In his mind, his return journey has all been about righting a wrong, seizing back what was his - the power, the Prime Ministerial Office, the Lodge.

This rang through his news conference tonight, when he said: "In 2007 the Australian people elected me to be their PM. That is the task that I resume today ..."

Rudd's tortuous course back has been costly to the party and contributed to, although is not responsible for, Gillard's failures.

His 57-45 margin was comfortable but far from the draft he wanted.

The latest lunge at the leadership by the Rudd forces was much better organised than the one of February last year, let alone the March fiasco when Rudd didn't stand.

One big difference is that caucus members, faced with horrifying public and private polls, have become more desperate.

It is a great pity they did not have the political nous and hard headedness to realise a year ago that he was their best option. Labor's prospects would be much better.

Rudd has had to make a liar of himself, after he said in March he would never again be leader of the Labor party.

Today he took responsibility for going back on his word, saying three things had made him change his stand. These were requests from his colleagues, his belief that the Australian people deserved a competitive choice at the election, and his fear that without that Tony Abbott would win the greatest landslide since federation.

In the enthusiasm of tonight Rudd's so flagrantly breaking his word is lost - seen as one of those things politicians do in these circumstances. Nevertheless it may fuel the cynicism in an already cynical electorate.

Bill Shorten's deathknock (though not entirely unexpected) announcement that he was switching sides was important and symbolic - and also involved going back on his word. Only a few hours before the ballot his spokeswoman said he hadn't changed position.

Shorten's subdued mood was a massive contrast to three years ago when he helped mastermind, from a Canberra restaurant, the coup against Rudd.

Shorten made no public comments after the ballot.

For him it has been one of the most difficult times in his career. He has been agonising over what to do for the past three weeks, consulting widely. Sources say he only made a final decision in the last day or so, informing the PM late today.

He decided, as he said publicly, that a leadership change was in the best interests of the party, and that it was desirable to be straight with his colleagues.

One factor in his thinking was believed to be the prospect of Tony Abbott getting control of the Senate.

As a future leader of the opposition, it is in Shorten's interest for Rudd to save as much of the furniture as possible and for the Senate to be kept in a combination of Labor-Green hands rather than swinging to the right.

Shorten did not seek anything from Rudd and nothing was offered.

Rudd will lift Labor's primary vote, now 29% in this week's Newspoll. The issue will be by how much - Abbott remains the election favourite.

The new PM is faced with an extraordinarily formidable task in reconstituting the government, pulling the party together, articulating a compelling agenda and fighting an election campaign.

He has to get ministers into key position immediately. Chris Bowen is set to be treasurer. Unfortunately Martin Ferguson, one of those who quit after the March leadership debacle, can't be brought back because he has already announced his retirement from parliament.

Rudd has said nothing as yet about the election date. If he goes for a poll earlier than Gillard's September 14 timetable, he will answer the prayers of many Australians.

An earlier date would also assist him with the immediate problems of division and disarray - the pressure will be on for unity - and it also would make maximum use of the honeymoon.

Julia Gillard has helped Rudd by her declaration that she would resign. Time will tell whether Rudd will be victim of leaks during the campaign, as she was, but there will be less motivation because there will be no one on a comeback course.

Rudd's best quality is his public popularity.

In his news conference he condemned the negativity that has characterised federal politics and declared "I see my role as PM in forging consensus wherever I can".

But he will not be able to get through just on popularity and generalities and uplifting rhetoric.

He faces tricky questions of policy. The first is what he does about the Gonski school funding program, which Gillard was talking up in parliament today.

Gillard has only two states signed up. Rudd is known to be sceptical about the program, and concerned about its expense. But if he wants to dump it that will be messy.

More intractable is the problem of the boats. The opposition can blame Rudd for the restarting of the trade. Maybe he can dodge some of that but what is he going to propose to get the problem under control?

He also has to counter Abbott's attacks on the carbon tax, by recalibrating the whole issue of carbon pricing - perhaps by promising to bring forward the trading scheme, which would lower the price.

Rudd tonight flagged a strategy of appealing to the youth vote and seeking to improve relations with business.

To young people he said: "I understand why you have switch off. It is hardly a surprise. But I want to ask you to please come back and listen afresh ... With your energy, we can start cooking with gas."

His pitch to business was: "I want to work closely with you. I have worked with you closely in the past, particulaly during the GFC ... We came through because we worked together. I am saying it loud and clear to businesses, large and small across the country, in partnership we can do great things for the country's future".

In her news conference Gillard mentioned the challenge of the hung parliament as well as party divisions for making her three years difficult.

Earlier, the two country independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, who have kept her government afloat, announced they would not recontest their seats.

Their decision is an appropriate epitaph for this strange parliament, which sits for the last time tomorrow.

PS This is the second time that a dog called Reuben living at the Lodge has lost his elite accommodation. The first Reuben was owned by Paul Keating, defeated at the 1996 election. Coups are tough all round.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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