The Australian media is frothing at the mouth this week over leadership speculation in the ongoing “war” between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Was Gillard openly planning to oust Rudd weeks before she did? Was she personally handing around secret Labor polling to colleagues showing the public preferred her as PM? Cue the rabid speculation…

Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald — the revelations also appeared on Nine News last night — says that Labor MPs admit Gillard was personally handing around copies of internal Labor polling aimed at destabilising Rudd days before the leadership coup. As Coorey reports:

“In the days before the strike on Mr Rudd on June 23, 2010, his deputy prime minister told some members of the caucus she believed the Rudd government was heading for electoral disaster and gave them copies of the polling to drive the point home.

The polling, which the Herald has seen, included a comparison between her and Mr Rudd that showed Ms Gillard favourably. In contrasting word-clouds of voters’ most common, one-word descriptions, the dominant words for Mr Rudd were “arrogant” and “weak”. The dominant words for Ms Gillard were “strong” and “capable.”

Party polling is supposed to be kept confidential between the federal secretariat, which organises the research and polling program, and the leader’s office.”

The news comes after Four Corners revealed this week that Gillard staff had been working on a leadership speech in preparation for her becoming prime minister and questioned Gillard about polling specifically comparing her to Rudd as leader. Gillard told Four Corners:

“And my answer is this: I’ve seen party polling over a long period of time. I don’t have specific recall of pages of party polling at that time. It may have included what you say. I don’t have specific recall of it.”

In a full transcript of the Four Corners interview released by the PM’s office, Gillard reinforced that she hadn’t made a decision to run for the top job until the night of the long knives:

“The truth is I made a decision to run for prime minister on the day I walked into Kevin Rudd’s office and asked him for a ballot. I did not make that decision at any time earlier.”

Many MPs were frustated that Gillard appeared on the ABC program.

“There was a consensus even among her most loyal supporters that, given the state of affairs, she should not have agreed to an interview. While her leadership was not at a tipping point, the episode had weakened it further,” reports Coorey.

People no longer trust her, says Michelle Grattan in The Age:

“Julia Gillard’s leadership is in crisis. There is no other word for it.

From one perspective, the Four Corners program added just tidbits to the history of the 2010 coup. But because it touched on the red-raw nerve of the PM’s credibility, those tidbits contained dynamite.”

Gillard’s non-answers are reminiscent of Bill Clinton denying he had sex with Monica Lewinsky, argues legal professor James Allan in The Australian:

“Ask her if she knew that for the previous fortnight before her coup against Kevin Rudd that her staff had been preparing her “I’m the newly crowned PM and Kevin is out” speech and her reply draws on all that legal forensic technique. She tells us that “I did not direct my staff to write that speech”. (Obviously this is not an answer Clinton would have been inclined to give, for obvious reasons, but I’m talking on the plane of general principle here.)

Okay, maybe Gillard lacks all that oozing down-home Clintonesque charm, but you can’t miss the same sort of attention to detail, to answering what wasn’t asked, to substituting what is presumably true for what is demanded.”

At least someone believes that Gillard didn’t make her mind up about the leadership until June 23, 2010. Dennis Shanahan in The Australian says it was a newspaper article that changed Gillard’s mind:

“But the truth is far more complicated and subtle, and not necessarily any more complimentary to Gillard, in that the straw that broke the camel’s back, prompting her “anger and distress” that led to the challenge, could have been a con engineered by those frustrated at her lack of resolve. Rather than being an active and disloyal plotter now lying to cover her tracks a year and a half later, it is possible Gillard was spurred into action by the story planted in The Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that Rudd’s chief-of-staff, Alister Jordan, was checking her loyalty with Labor MPs. Gillard’s reaction to the story was to become “the angriest I have ever seen her”, according to a source present in her office. Her uncharacteristically emotional reaction still burns in Gillard’s mind.”

Yesterday the Opposition were rubbing salt in Labor’s leadership wound by asking several questions in question time about Gillard and Rudd’s relationship. As Geoff Kitney writes in the Australian Financial Review:

“But the critical question that was left hanging was not the opposition’s. It was the question that Labor MPs increasingly know they cannot avoid answering: how much longer will it be before the Labor leadership issue has to come to a head?”

Over at the Financial Review, David Crowe and Gemma Daley are reporting how many votes apiece Gillard and Rudd has:

“The developments heightened expectations that Mr Rudd would seek to reclaim the leadership despite doubts about the level of his support, with his opponents estimating his numbers at 20 of the 103 caucus votes rather than the 40 sometimes claimed and the 53 he would need to win.”

Let the media mayhem continue.