Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Canberra's bloody night of the long needles

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As Gillard said in a dignified speech on Wednesday night, the gender factor amounted neither to nothing nor everything, but somewhere in between.

The blood spilled all over the carpet in the Australian Labor Party room is Julia Gillard's. Photo / Getty Images
The blood spilled all over the carpet in the Australian Labor Party room is Julia Gillard's. Photo / Getty Images

Only the Australians call it a "spill". But however peculiar their coinage to describe the triggering of a party caucus leadership vote, it's gloriously apt.

In the latest example, the blood spilled all over the carpet in the Australian Labor Party room is Julia Gillard's. But zoom in and the bloodstains of three years ago are still visible.

In 2010, sitting leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was defenestrated in the face of an impending election. That evening, he delivered a lengthy, tearful farewell speech before the cameras, and he's been crying over spilled blood ever since.

Months of worsening poll numbers convinced enough of Gillard's parliamentary colleagues that only a change in leader could avert what Rudd on Wednesday afternoon warned would otherwise be "catastrophic defeat". The desperation of Gillard, meanwhile, was seen to have been illustrated in the form of a glossy spread in the Australian Women's Weekly (a magazine which, I can't resist noting, is published once a month) of the Prime Minister knitting a kangaroo for the royal baby.

And so followed the night of the long needles. Enacted largely in public view, it made the State of Origin playing on the other channel look like a yoga retreat. After repeated failures to unseat Gillard, Rudd had previously pledged his loyalty. There were "no circumstances" under which he would challenge. On Wednesday, he changed his mind, to the surprise of no one. It was just the latest poisonous chapter in modern Australian politics. In the words of the BBC's former Australian correspondent, Nick Bryant, so brutal and bloody are the lucky country's politics they resemble "a soap opera directed by Quentin Tarantino".

Much of the viciousness directed at Gillard has come with a sexist stench.

The knitting thing served as a kind of comedy postscript to weeks of wrangling in which the Prime Minister was accused of "playing the gender card" for reigniting the abortion debate.

In the eyes of much of Australia's blokey media, this tactic - which essentially amounted to a single remark - was a far greater sin than the procession of misogyny sent her way, from insinuations about her partner's sexuality to Liberal fundraiser menus based on her body parts.

It is impossible to know how much of all that contributed to her downfall. As Gillard said in a dignified speech on Wednesday night, the gender factor amounted neither to nothing nor everything, but somewhere in between. Either way, Australian politics and culture are uglier for it.

That nastiness and misogyny is certainly not extinct in New Zealand - as much of the fallout from the Dunne business illustrated - but it is a much rarer species.

What really did for Gillard were her own missteps. The carbon tax. The surplus that wasn't. A string of expedient personnel shufflings that were enough to make John Key's dealings with John Banks and Peter Dunne look principled. And over-arching all of that, the irreconcilable division at the heart of the Labor Party. The grand, Sophoclean theme of inevitability in the form of a bloodied, grinning Kevin Rudd.

This morning, Labor MPs - or at least those who haven't announced they'll be quitting Parliament - will be feeling relieved at the sight of a surge in polling following the latest coup.

There's no guarantee that will endure to the election, but it will be seen as vindication for their decision to reinstate a man renowned both for obsessive micro-managing and a volcanic temper.

Canberra's violent week has understandably enough encouraged a flurry of speculation this side of the Ditch about New Zealand Labour's own leadership predicament, even if Australian Labor's antics in many ways make their New Zealand counterparts look functional and harmonious. For Rudd, a more pressing NZ Labour scenario is probably to be found in 1990. He'll be hoping that his second tilt at the big job lasts longer than the two months served by Mike Moore after Geoffrey Palmer was ousted as Prime Minister by a party staring down the barrel of electoral defeat.

As long as we're throwing around transtasman comparisons, however, the weightier link to draw is between the current New Zealand Prime Minister and the man in pole position to be his next Australian equivalent.

Kevin Rudd is already trying to cast the opposition Liberal Party as acolytes of the austerity economics being pursued by Britain's Conservatives. But for Tony Abbott and the Liberals, a much more alluring template for centre-right strategy is the National Party of New Zealand under John Key.

Abbott's team have acknowledged they have been monitoring the Key experience, and no doubt they envy his political pragmatism as much as his effortlessly amiable dork routine.

None of that comes naturally to Abbott, a man who has struggled in his own way to persuade voters he's One Of Them. And the Liberals would be mad not to want to borrow from Key: this week's Herald poll put his preferred-PM rating, halfway through a second term, at 65.2 per cent. A number beyond the wildest dreams of Liberal strategists, comfortably unspillable.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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