The festering boil at the core of the Gillard Government has finally been lanced and Australians must be astonished by the eruption of poison.

There have been plenty of toxic relationships in Australian politics, but nothing to match the widespread and very public outpourings of bile brought on by the battle between the present Prime Minister and the man she supplanted.

Everyone with the remotest interest in politics has known for some time that all was not well inside Labor.

But it's taken Kevin Rudd's declaration of war, through his resignation as Foreign Minister, to bring out the full horror of the hatreds.


The worst of it is that the contest is all about personality and style. Policy and ideology have little to do with it.

It all seemed so different four years ago when Rudd vanquished John Howard and, with Julia Gillard as his deputy, brought Labor back to power.

Rudd's polling was stratospheric. Slowly, scarcely noticeable at first, things changed.

Stories seeped out about Rudd's temper, such as reducing an air force flight attendant to tears because he couldn't get the meal he wanted.

Or his rudeness in snubbing New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally. He unsettled the public service, demanding officers work absurd hours, often to prepare material that was never used.

He summoned busy people, even service chiefs, and then kept them waiting.

In Parliament, and on other public occasions, the Mandarin speaker was a strange mixture - a parody of a nerdy bureaucrat at times, a parody of a 1950s Ocker at others.

And, as Australia met and largely overcame the global financial crisis, Rudd delighted in almost daily economic lectures. Gillard, the deputy with her own huge portfolio load, was a very effective and complementary parliamentary performer.

She was articulate, lucid and woundingly entertaining.

Things started to go seriously wrong for Rudd in the autumn of 2010, though it probably started with the abortive Copenhagen climate change conference which proved he didn't walk on water. As the polls turned, more stories of erratic behaviour surfaced.

The mining industry was doing him over and his emissions trading scheme was junked. Gillard was mentioned as a replacement. The loyal deputy laughed that she had a better chance of playing full forward for [AFL team] the Western Bulldogs.

What she didn't tell Australians until yesterday was that she was wearing herself out trying to rescue the workings of government from the dysfunctional Rudd.

On June 23, 2010, Gillard decided she could be full forward for Australia. The next day, unopposed - as Rudd realised he didn't have the numbers - she became PM.

This caused a strange mixture of reactions. She was an appealing prospect, attractive and efficient, and many were pleased that Australia at last had a woman in the top job. On the other hand, she got there via the midnight knock, engineered by those perennial Labor villains, the faceless men. And she'd done over the bloke Australians had voted for. Gillard as PM never fulfilled her shimmering promise. Maybe it was the poisoned chalice of the coup, perhaps the Peter Principle.

The difficulties of dealing with a hung Parliament, and delivering on her promises to the crossbench, were certainly part of it.

Rudd galloped round the world as Foreign Minister - the prize he'd extorted - and brooded and plotted.

The people, who don't know the rivals personally, prefer Rudd. The caucus, which does know them, seems to prefer Gillard.

There's no certainty that Monday's showdown in Canberra will settle the matter.