'Let's all play hollow the leader ...'

A potential challenge from Kevin Rudd could see the Australian Labor Party remove its third sitting prime minister.

Story highlights

  • Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010 after he lost Labor Party support
  • Comparisons drawn with contest between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating more than 20 years ago
  • Rudd was brought back as Foreign Minister and portrayed himself content serving Gillard
  • But the Australian media have speculated he may challenge for the party leadership

The night Bob Hawke lost the Labor leadership 20-odd years ago, I was a tender recruit to the Canberra press gallery who found myself, fortuitously, marooned at the Prime Minister's office door whilst the Labor caucus was dispatching the occupant.

Mistaken by security guards -- then hastily clearing nearby corridors -- as a Prime Ministerial staffer, I was left to witness Hawke's return to his office and his waiting family as an ex-Prime Minister, at that time the only one to be rejected by his own party.

Hawke came striding out of the caucus room, chin forward, moist eyes straight ahead, a clutch of dejected staff trailing behind. At the same moment his office door opened and out burst his then-wife, Hazel, sobbing. Either she'd been expecting the worst or, more probably, there had been a phone call telegraphing it.

She flung herself at her husband. Hawke gathered her up, telling her "Don't cry, don't cry." And as he disappeared into his office, he barked: "I need a bloody cup of tea."

If the humiliation of that evening's historic rejection winded him, Hawke didn't show it.

Soon afterwards trolleys of liquor were rolling along the corridors of Parliament House and Hawke hosted a wake that went for hours, open to all comers. He angered, in my sight, only once that night; he rounded on a particular reporter who had showered him with sympathy but who, in Hawke's view, had been long doing the bidding of the victor, Paul Keating.

Australian FM Kevin Rudd resigns

Never before had the Labor Party dumped a serving Prime Minister, yet Hawke's equanimity -- outwardly at least -- was striking. You might have said he seemed both resigned and liberated about the loss of the job he'd held for nearly nine years. Of course, the long contest with Keating had been aggravating to Hawke and sapping for his Government; Keating had effectively launched his challenge late the year before, in 1990, when he contended, in his Plácido Domingo speech, that Australia had never had a great Prime Minister. Then he challenged Hawke in mid-1991, lost and went to the back bench until his second -- and successful challenge -- at the end of that year.

Australia PM calls for leadership vote
Australia PM calls for leadership vote


    Australia PM calls for leadership vote


Australia PM calls for leadership vote 03:53
Why Rudd resigned as Australian FM
Why Rudd resigned as Australian FM


    Why Rudd resigned as Australian FM


Why Rudd resigned as Australian FM 04:21
Kevin Rudd resigns as Australian FM
Kevin Rudd resigns as Australian FM


    Kevin Rudd resigns as Australian FM


Kevin Rudd resigns as Australian FM 03:25

Hawke, the Labor Party and most Australians knew that Keating had Hawke lined up for the kill.

Not so Kevin Rudd.

It has been an undeclared, subterranean campaign to reinstall Rudd in the Prime Minister's office -- one from which the candidate has, until now, been able to stay aloof. Rudd has portrayed himself as busy and contented within the Cabinet under Julia Gillard. As he described it last week, he has been "a happy little Vegemite" being Australia's foreign minister.

Invariably for Rudd, questions about the quality of the Labor Party leadership, the propriety of those who removed him from the Prime Minister's office or of who posted the now-infamous video of his rage on YouTube all are questions that should, he contends, be asked of "others." Thus he causes those others -- and we mostly know who he means -- to fall under suspicion.

And in the resulting public imagery, it is not Rudd who is seeking to return to the Prime Minister's office; rather it is a semi-reluctant Rudd who is being ferried along by a group of ministers, MPs and Labor fixers who believe the only way that Labor can win against Tony Abbott and the Coalition at the next election is for Rudd to resume the leadership.

Gillard calls for Australian Labor Party leadership vote

Their tactic has been to avoid having Rudd, unlike Keating, seen as an active seeker of his Prime Minister's job. The reasons are two-fold. The Rudd camp has not wanted to give the Prime Minister a reason to confront them head-on because to do so would be to risk provoking a leadership ballot before Rudd has assembled the numbers he needs -- and it's still doubtful that he has. Second, for Rudd to be seen publicly tearing at Gillard's leadership would play to a series of strong negatives -- that Rudd is motivated by revenge, that he has no regard for governance, that he is attacking a woman, that he has a monstrous sense of entitlement.

It may even be true, as some of Rudd's campaigners have claimed privately in the past few days, that Rudd did not set out to regain his old job after he was deposed by Gillard back in mid-2010. That instead, the ongoing poor opinion polling for the Labor Party, some avoidable stumbles by Gillard, stubborn resentment within the electorate about the manner of her ascendancy and the blandishments of some of his colleagues combined to persuade Rudd that his return was feasible.

But Rudd had to be seen to be drafted by his party back into the Prime Minister's office.

Behind the scenes of Australia's political 'soap opera'

That plan still seemed intact until 1.38pm on Saturday February 18, when a You Tube user, under the name of HappyVegemiteKR, uploaded a video showing a frustrated and increasingly furious Rudd attempting to complete a video message in the Chinese language but stumbling over the words. Filmed at least two years ago in his office, while he was Prime Minister, the video contained Rudd's unusable, profane outtakes, plenty of teeth-gnashing, wild-eyed fury, and blaming others including the "dickheads in the embassy."

Because the footage most likely had been retained in a Government archive, suspicion falls on the Prime Minister's office or somewhere nearby as HappyVegemiteKR's source. This conspiracy Gillard denies, but the enquiry, Rudd says, is another of those "questions for others."

Whatever its source, HappyVegemiteKR's video most likely will be remembered as much for the entertainment provided by a filthy Rudd, as for the trigger that brought his leadership challenge into the open.

Rudd learned of HappyVegemiteKR's You Tube activity early on Saturday evening as he was eating a Thai take-away meal at his Brisbane home with Bruce Hawker, the Sydney-based political strategist who has guided many Labor election campaigns.

Hawker is now openly connected to the Rudd campaign's camp and helped advise Rudd that night.

"The conspiracy theorists are out in number," says Hawker. "But I was with him, and he was embarrassed and concerned and understood that he had to manage the problem quickly. The complication was that he was leaving the country the next morning. So the decision was made to contact Sky, which is a 24-hour news channel, and do an interview. As it turned out, I think that was the appropriate thing to do."

Prompted and legitimized by the leaked video, by midnight Saturday Rudd was on Sky News, effectively sending to the Labor Party and Australians a revised CV that set down his qualifications for another shot at the Prime Minister's job. Apologizing for his language in the video, he said he had changed since being deposed by Gillard almost 20 months ago. He had learned to delegate more, to become less angry and listen up - especially to his colleagues.

It was a coded application for the return of his former job. And it was reinforced on Rudd's behalf on Monday morning when the former Queensland Labor Premier, Peter Beattie, publicly urged the Prime Minister to hold a leadership ballot. The Queensland band of brothers -- Rudd, Beattie and Bruce Hawker -- succeeded, finally, in flushing out publicly the Prime Minister's senior ministerial supporters to concede that which they have been careful for weeks not to: Gillard's leadership is under siege from within her own Cabinet and party room.

Tactically the day was a victory for Rudd; the leadership issue was out in public and now, sooner or later, it will have to be confronted.

There is anxiety and uncertainty on both sides over whether they have the numbers. Gillard is not going to a ballot, yet, and behaves as if life is business as usual in her dealings with the man she calls her foreign minister, usually (and unusually) not by his name. And Rudd is in the Mexican resort city of Los Cabos at a G20 meeting and will not return to Australia until the weekend.

Will he force a challenge when parliament returns on February 27?

Bruce Hawker -- a man who might know -- offers this: "I think, nevertheless, once Rudd is back in town, there is going to be another buildup of pressure for this matter to be resolved once and for all."

Should Rudd force a ballot? "I don't know exactly how this is going to be played out. There are various scenarios but one thing that seems completely implausible is that it's just going to go away and that people will forget about it and move on to another issue. This is a boil that has to be lanced."

Gillard, you would expect, knows that. She's wielded that lance before.

Read the original piece in The Global Mail