Kevin Rudd: Australia's Once-and-Future King

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In parliament on Thursday afternoon the Gillard government faced the third division of the day where it didn't quite have the numbers. It was a motion to suspend standing orders so as to allow a censure debate.

The government and the opposition exchanged places with one another and the tellers began to count heads. At the last minute, Kevin Rudd walked into the chamber beaming and made as if to go to his normal spot on the government front bench before swerving off to join his Labor colleagues on the other side.

It was a reminder of the power he wields with a single vote, on a day when no one needed any reminding. For censure motions to succeed, they need not just a simple majority of the members in the chamber at any given time but an absolute majority, which is 76 votes in a house of 150 members. As it turned out, Rob Oakeshott absented himself from the count. As well, the Greens' Adam Bandt got cold feet on taking his successful resolution that morning - opposing the Malaysian refugee exchange - to its logical conclusion.

The upshot was that Julia Gillard was spared the indignity of having to debate a censure motion, which in the Westminster system is only one step short of a no-confidence motion on which the government might have fallen. No wonder tempers were fraying and the chief government whip, Joel Fitzgibbon, so far forgot himself as to try to talk over the Speaker and ask a Dorothy Dixer while Tony Abbott had the call to ask a supplementary question of the Prime Minister.

We now know that during question time Gillard and Rudd had a brief, furious meeting in a cabinet antechamber. The body language in the photographs of the pair of them, unable to walk down the corridor together or even to look directly at one another, said it all. According to some reports, as Rudd walked out into the passageway, he said: "The argument is not of that nature and you know it."

While the unresolved Malaysian solution was uppermost in the minds of many members that day, I suppose he could have been talking about anything and speculation on the subject matter of the conversation is unproductive.

What matters is that it's unmistakeably Ruddspeak and the tone is characteristic, too; pedantic and superior, staking out whatever might pass for the high moral ground. The pair of them haven't moved beyond the frigid civility of the truce talks in Brisbane in the middle of the election campaign. The situation may even be said to have deteriorated, given that Rudd hasn't been given a chance to speak at the Labor state conference this weekend.

This is both a snub to Rudd and an own goal as far as the party in Queensland is concerned, considering how much more popular than Gillard he is and always has been. Still, it's not as though the snub was unprovoked. Parliamentarians and ACT residents woke up on Thursday morning to a front-page story from Chris Johnson, the chief political correspondent for The Canberra Times, under the headline "Rudd plotting return: insiders".

It's only to be expected that a small paper based in the nation's capital and catering to an audience top-heavy with commonwealth public servants should take itself and the politicking that plays out on its home turf immensely seriously. Readers should make allowances for the breathless tone in the passage that follows and concentrate on the shadow-play.

"Kevin Rudd has a plan to get back into the Lodge even if it means a stint in opposition first, according to Labor sources who insist the Foreign Minister is barely hiding his ambition to lead the party again.

"But while the man Labor dumped as prime minister for Julia Gillard a year ago has nowhere near the caucus numbers, there is a small group of backbenchers now wondering if Mr Rudd might be a viable alternative to the current prime minister. Plummeting polling results for the Labor government have sparked a public rally of support for Ms Gillard from the party's factional powerbrokers.

"But some, including some who just two months ago told The Canberra Times that Mr Rudd had no hope of regaining the leadership, are now either wavering or quietly offering support for the former prime minister. Some even said Mr Rudd has a well-planned strategy to return himself to the party's top job. 'It's quite palpable,' said one. 'Kevin is so determined to lead the party again that he might be prepared to watch us lose government and then be the one to win it back. In fact there is talk about that he has said as much to some people.' "

How could such a piece have come to be written, and not merely published but given front-page treatment? It presupposes a fair amount of tacit sanction and indeed encouragement from Rudd himself and from a growing group of supporters.

But were the waverers who are now coming around really undecided, or closet supporters who've come out to create a sense of gathering momentum?

The timing is nice, although none too subtle, a year on and with the latest Newspoll showing the party and the leader's standing in the polls in far worse shape. In counterpoint to Gillard's claim to be playing a long game that, if everyone knuckles down, can still lead to triumph in the end is Rudd's even longer-run strategy of enduring defeat and planning the return to office.

It doesn't matter that both the claim and counter-claim are the stuff of fantasies, just as long as some of the back bench are beguiled by them. As for Rudd, is he mad enough to believe his own propaganda? Perhaps he is, intermittently. But the theme of the once-and-future king is fundamentally a way of asserting that he is the rightful leader shamefully usurped.

He can destabilise Gillard's prime ministership with impunity and let her stew in her own juice whenever she dabbles ill-advisedly in international diplomacy because she has no power over him and she depends on his vote.

Even the suspicion that Rudd might be borderline delusional serves to rock the boat. MPs in marginal seats will continue to wonder: is he mad enough to pull the pin and bring down the government and, if so, when? They'll all remember that when he took over the leadership he said that it would be fun to mess with John Howard's head for a few months. Nowadays the heads he messes with are those of his colleagues.

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