Paul Holmes on New Zealand
Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Two leaders squabble over poisoned chalice


Ex-PM gets his mojo back as Gillard's Labor faces defeat

The Australian Labor Party leadership spill. It is a fight of acute savagery. It is titanic. Bring out all the words that have anything to do with life and death and the tearing out of hearts with your bare hand.

Kevin Rudd wants the top job back. To do it he's prepared to instigate civil war. He made his surprise move from Washington and smacked Julia Gillard right between the eyes, as she did to him nearly two years ago.

It is ugly. It is ruthless. It is bruising bare knuckle. For the both of them, tough, ambitious politicians, this is the fight of their lives.

Gillard, the moment Rudd quit as Foreign Minister, blitzed him back. Kevin Rudd was a useless and erratic Prime Minister. A succession of Gillard loyalists elaborated on Rudd's perceived eccentricities.

Others spoke of his contempt for caucus, the way MPs didn't know what Rudd was going to do or say from one day to the next.

Oh, it's a monumental fight this one. To the death. This is it now. This is the endgame. By the middle of the day on Monday, there will be one lauded victor and there will be one broken soul banished forever to obscurity.

I think Gillard will win. She is a formidable character. She is tough as nails. On the hoof she phrases herself with elegance and clarity.

From this side of the ditch she looks and sounds great but over on the other side of the Tasman too many voters can't stand her. Her numbers are hopeless. And this is the one great Australian issue this weekend and it is the one great and simple strength Kevin Rudd has.

Everyone knows that Gillard cannot be returned as Prime Minister at the next election. Everyone knows she is a goner, that Tony Abbott, a man who parades in budgie smugglers, is on track for a Liberal landslide. But all might not be lost for Labor. Labor MPs know that Australians sense something about Abbott they don't like. The right Labor leadership could beat him, or at least cause the defeat to be not so resounding. But Labor MPs, in making their decision between Gillard and Rudd, and the self-preservation instinct being what it is, will weigh another issue as well.

If they stick with Gillard will they be out of work after the next Australian federal election? And what would a decimation mean for the Labor Party? It might be a long time in the shade for them. So it's a tough one.

As I say, Gillard is so impressive. Nicola Roxon, one of Gillard's most loyal supporters, says that Kevin Rudd could behave appallingly to his colleagues and his staff. He could be funny and witty and he could be acerbic and hurtful as well. Sure, said Roxon, a prime minister is under all kinds of pressure but she had never seen Gillard behave like that, no matter how pressed she gets. Roxon says people marvel at Gillard's grace and patience under stress.

Gillard came to Wellington and addressed the New Zealand Parliament. Some of the MPs still rave about that speech. Maurice Williamson told me it was the best speech he had ever heard.

But she cannot lift her numbers.

Nevertheless, Kevin Rudd is one very odd man. You can find yourself getting the creeps watching him. There is something decidedly precious there.

Who will ever forget that rambling, ranting nonsense he came out with after Gillard deposed him in mid-2010? It was a long, self-pitying list of his proudest achievements as Prime Minister. On and on, a long bleat of self-pity.

It was one of the finest examples in history of how to lose badly, whining your way into obscurity. Well, so you might have thought.

A friend of mine - a man who cut his political teeth in the backrooms of Queensland Labor Party politics in the 1980s when Labor was about to wrest power from the National Party after a long time in the wilderness - tells me he once saw a most peculiar thing .

The Queensland Labor leader was Wayne Goss, whose Eminence Grise - his Heather Simpson, the adviser who was always with him - was an immaculately groomed young fellow, a Tin Tin lookalike called Kevin Rudd. My friend says Goss and his entourage were about to leave a room to meet the media or the public. Suddenly the entourage and the premier were stalled in the room.

Kevin Rudd would not go out without checking himself in a mirror and there wasn't one to be found. And that's what people sense about Rudd, that he's a narcissist. And this contest makes you wonder also if he's a hater and a destroyer.

Maybe so. But in the end, there is one great elephant in the room. Julia Gillard is about to get thumped by Tony Abbott. Might it just be possible that Rudd could beat Abbott into submission and return Labor to government?

One thing is already clear. Rudd has his mojo back. He knows a simple truth. Julia can't beat Tony.

- NZ Herald

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