Kathy Marks: Wisdom of potential second coup hard to fathom

Kevin Rudd. Photo / Getty Images
Kevin Rudd. Photo / Getty Images

To many Australians, particularly those outside the claustrophobic bubble of Canberra politics, it seems extraordinary that a party that has yet to recover from deposing one sitting prime minister would contemplate getting rid of a second.

When that party barely managed to scrape together a minority government at the last election, and currently has a margin of one seat, the move seems near suicidal. And when the new prime minister would be the one whose ousting has caused so much anguish and division, it is plain mystifying.

Kevin Rudd might be denying that he plans to challenge Julia Gillard for the Labor leadership, and Gillard might be claiming to have "the strong confidence of my colleagues, their strong support", but as far as the political pundits are concerned, it is not a matter of if, but when, the two will fight a popularity contest.

It's true that Gillard has been disappointing in the top job, struggling to demonstrate her undoubted political skills or her engaging personality.

It's true that her Government has failed to get the message across that its skilful stewardship of the economy is helping to shield Australia from global volatility. It's true that Gillard's position has been weakened by a series of mistakes - such as her recent decision to participate in an ABC Four Corners investigation of Labor's decline, which only served to stir the pot of discontent - and by nearly a year of atrocious poll ratings.

What is difficult to understand is why those backing Rudd's return believe that he would do any better - it was poor opinion polls, after all, which sealed his fate - or why anyone believes he is a reformed character. The video of him swearing and banging the table while trying to record a speech in Mandarin was a reminder of his least appealing personality traits - traits which played a large part in swinging the Labor caucus against him.

Rudd's explanation of his fit of rage - that he was frustrated at himself, not the "f***ing Chinese interpreter" who wrote the script - was not convincing, nor were his protestations in an interview with Sky News that he has learnt to "delegate more ... consult more broadly ... [and] do less in a given working day".

However, the video, which mysteriously appeared on YouTube at the weekend and was no doubt intended to discredit him, seems to have had the opposite effect. Certainly, it has brought the leadership tensions, which have been simmering for many months, to a boil.

It is by no means clear, though, that the Foreign Affairs Minister would triumph in a ballot, were one to be held. And if he does challenge Gillard and loses, that could harm Labor even further, exacerbating divisions and reinforcing the impression of a government in crisis and tearing itself apart.

Quite how Rudd's supporters think the stand-off will boost the party's fortunes is hard to imagine. Many Australians are still horrified by the way Labor knifed Rudd, and a second assassination is unlikely to mollify them. The perception that prime ministers can be dumped at will offends voters' sense of fairness, as well as diminishing the seriousness of the office.

Some analysts are warning that the political instability could affect business confidence and the markets, and could even end up damaging Australia's international standing. Certainly, the vision of rival factions squabbling instead of getting on with the business of governing is highly unedifying. As Queensland's Labor premier, Anna Bligh, facing a tough re-election battle this month, urged her federal colleagues at the weekend: "Just get on and fix it."

- NZ Herald

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