The talking points have been cast aside. The real politics, red in tooth and claw, the savage sort reserved for colleagues rather than partisan opponents, are being undertaken in public, rather than behind closed doors. The time for subtlety, euphemism and obfuscation are over.

But not, it seems, the time for delusion.

We’re now getting the true history of Kevin Rudd from his erstwhile colleagues, people so lavish in their praise of him and so earnest in their support while he was prime minister, who now feel released from whatever bonds of collegiality they may have felt — bonds that seem to have snapped around Simon Crean some time ago. Even Julia Gillard, in what will doubtless be a decision she will eventually rue, decided to open up about her time as his deputy, today discussing the paralysis that gripped his government and her own valiant efforts to remedy things.

We look forward to future revelations about her own time as Prime Minister from former colleagues following her example.

Of course, Wayne Swan has topped everyone and secured whatever awards exist for political spray of the year with an extraordinary, vitriol-laden outburst against his colleague, basically suggesting he shouldn’t be in the party and should never have been in it. Turns out Swan can communicate effectively when he feels like it.

The outpouring of contumely towards Rudd is so great you wonder how on earth anyone in Labor ever tolerated his presence for a moment, let alone allowed him to become leader. And what does it say about Julia Gillard’s judgment that this “dysfunctional”, “demeaning”, “undermining” man has been allowed to hold a senior cabinet position for so long?

Most remarkable, though, was Swan’s claim that “colleagues are sick of Kevin Rudd driving the vote down by sabotaging policy announcements and undermining our substantial economic successes”.

It’s an odd claim to make, that Rudd has been driving the government’s vote down. The key issue that drove the government’s vote down was Gillard’s decision to embrace a carbon price early last year. What’s kept it down has been a succession of misjudgments by the Prime Minister that cancelled out any momentum she ever gained. It wasn’t Rudd who bungled a reshuffle, or performed poorly at the national conference, or who alienated Andrew Wilkie. Rudd didn’t elevate asylum seekers as a totemic issue and then fail to deliver. It wasn’t Rudd who failed to nail Tony Abbott, the biggest policy flake to lead a major party since Alexander Downer, over economic management.

Labor’s problem isn’t Rudd. It’s Gillard and, when it comes to selling the government’s excellent economic record, Swan and Penny Wong. Those problems will remain beyond Monday if Gillard wins. Her media conference this morning — which began in tedium and only livened up when a News Limited journalist was appallingly disrespectful to her — was decidedly short on how she was going to turn around the government’s fortunes.

And it’s a funny parallel but just as with Abbott, the government appears obsessed with Rudd and can’t stop talking about him, but can’t lay a glove on him. Tony Burke declared Rudd’s campaigning for the leadership was “the worst-kept secret in Canberra” (gee minister, I can think of some other things that fit that particular bill). But Swan evinced no evidence of Rudd sabotaging policy announcements or undermining economic success.

Indeed, the search for a “smoking gun” of Rudd’s disloyalty appears to have consumed the government for days. Andrew Wilkie’s comments were seized on by Crean, before Wilkie explained them away. A Rudd ally is said to have spoken to the clubs and pubs about pokies reform and the leadership. And in a moment of high comedy last night, Michael Danby was wheeled on by the ABC to declare that he knew Rudd had backgrounded several unnamed journalists about his ambitions. “Say it isn’t so, Kevin,” Danby pleaded earnestly, like the mythical baseball fan who demanded as much of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Meantime, Swan has issued a statement saying he wouldn’t be heading to the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Mexico, a key one following the Greek bailout that will address the role of the IMF in the eurozone crisis. And, of course, Rudd himself has walked out halfway through a series of important international meetings.

For all Abbott’s many and large flaws, he’s dead right when he says the government is dysfunctional and falling to pieces.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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