In 2007 the stakes were higher than ever, because of WorkChoices. For the labour movement as a whole and for the trade unions in particular, WorkChoices represented Armageddon. It was never meant to happen; only after Labor strategists’ extraordinary incompetence in drawing up their Senate preference lists, delivering control of the upper house to an incredulous but delighted prime minister, did it become a possibility.

As a result, the Howard government put the legislation together in a rush, to bed it down well before the next election. It was an untidy package, bristling with unsorted detail and unintended consequences. While it had not produced the industrial devastation that critics had predicted (and hoped for), it still had the feel of a work in progress. If Labor could win in 2007, it would be possible to undo most of it without a great deal of political or social trauma. But if Labor lost, WorkChoices would become entrenched and industrial relations would be changed forever. The heavies were prepared to take any risk to avoid that happening, even one as bizarre as the odd couple they had just installed.

The optimists in the party said that the differences between Rudd and Gillard were not a hindrance, but a virtue: each would appeal to a particular set of voters. Rudd would draw the conservatives, Gillard the radicals; Rudd’s appeal to middle-class males would be complemented by Gillard’s attraction for working-class females. (Taken to its logical extreme, the argument suggested that Rudd would win over the myopic and Gillard the redheads.) Seductive as it was, it ignored the obvious corollary: for many swinging voters, a liking for one of the pair might be more than offset by a loathing of the other.

In any case, the partnership, while celebrated like a Packer family wedding, could well turn out to be just as unstable. While the first few days saw the happy couple practically hand in hand, the harsh reality of politics decrees that there can only ever be one leader: election campaigns are not made for double acts. Gillard seemed to understand this, at least early on; she spoke only when spoken to and generally played the role of dutiful helpmeet to perfection. But none of those who knew her well, or even casually, imagined that she could keep it up for the best part of a year. All the tacticians could sensibly hope for was that when she did assert herself, it would be in reasonable harmony with her leader – which, given her record, was far from certain.

This is an extract from Poll Dancing: The Story of the 2007 Election by Mungo MacCallum, Black Inc. RRP $24.95 —

Tomorrow: The central issue was always going to be The Economy, Stupid