The right-wing coup that made notional left-winger Julia Gillard prime minister of Australia fits a pattern starting in her earliest days in student politics — a drive for power that subsumed strict factional loyalty for crafty opportunism.

Gillard’s fundamental decision to strike out from the ALP’s left and join the Socialist Forum in 1984, an organisation specifically set up to expunge the last vestiges of Bill Hartley-style command and control from the party, set a course that would lead all the way to the Lodge, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time.

The untethered influence peddling didn’t immediately work — two disastrous pre-selection bids faltered on factional lines in 1993 and 1996 failed because of her casual disregard of former comrades that might have seen her elected.

Tellingly, it was only her stint as John Brumby’s chief-of-staff, and her subsequent netting of the support of Brumby’s powerful right faction, that finally allowed Gillard to neck Gaye Yuille in 1998 in Lalor — a development that enraged Lindsay Tanner. Yuille, the well-liked state secretary of Tanner’s Clerk’s Union, had strong links to the local community and, unlike Gillard, was a fixture in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

The Victorian right elevated Gillard in Lalor, and 12 years later was again central to the bloodthirsty decision to decapitate Kevin Rudd and make Gillard prime minister.

“I’ve known Julia for a long time,” a chuffed Brumby crowed this morning. “She’s got a great intellect, great compassion and a wonderful way with people.”

Bill Shorten, his NSW media stalking horse Paul Howes, David Feeney and their union acolytes have their grubby paws all over this morning’s extraordinary events. It was an AWU crisis meeting yesterday that set the wheels in motion, a meeting that will almost certainly lead to a slew of Liberal ‘faceless men’ election ads.

Even after her Lalor victory, Gillard was still working the angles to move to the front bench, as loyalists like Tanner (who has watched on bemused over the last 24 hours) and Kim Carr remained unwilling to break entirely with the faction-strewn past. Carr was still tenuously onside, but the relationship was one of opportunism.

According to Jacqueline Kent, whose biography of Gillard outlined the machinations that gifted her a seat on the green leather, it was her “network of influence” rather than her flagging loyalty to the left, that foreshadowed yesterday’s stitch-up, in much the same manner as the cross-factional pact that let Gillard and Rudd topple Kim Beazley.

“She’s never been somebody who has dealt in factional blocs … it’s all been about networks of influence,” Kent told Crikey. “She’s definitely no Kristina Kenneally … It’s about negotiation rather than the ‘workers united’ kind of stuff.”

Kent said she wouldn’t have been surprised that Carr, central to the Beazley putsch, also flexed his muscle yesterday: “She’s always relied on him at crucial times to make it through, really.”

Now, Gillard’s networks have paid the ultimate dividend. The shocking idea that a 28-old-year-old right-wing unionist in the form of Howes can put the wheels in motion to dump the nation’s leader, even if acting as cover for Rudd-rival Shorten, has left the Victorian Left incredulous. If Rudd’s failed communication strategy was slammed for being run by a clutch of cleanskin 30-year-olds in Alister Jordan, Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton, then Howes won’t escape scrutiny for his role either.

“This was a loathsome performance … what the hell is Paul Howes doing instructing the caucus?,” one senior Victorian left faction source told Crikey this morning.

The source said the Howes-led putsch “was fallen into, as opposed to brilliantly executed”. It was, ironically, “brought about by a significant capacity to manage communications…nothing terribly bad has happened externally.”

The backroom role of Health Services Union head and ALP national president Michael Williamson has also caused concern, as has Feeney’s decision to seemingly bury the hatchet with Shorten in a bid to knife Rudd. This may even lead to the divided Victorian right re-uniting behind Gillard as PM, with ramifications for the state’s factional peace deal.

Perhaps the best indication of the frenzied behind-the-scenes machinations was Rudd’s reflexive pitch last night to the hearts of minds of the left, the left that Gillard abandoned, in a last minute bid to keep his grip on power.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey