In contrasting media conferences, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have made their public pitches for the leadership of the Labor party, to be decided in a leadership ballot at 10am on Monday.

In many ways this is now the contest Labor should have had on 24 June 2010, which never occurred because the party moved almost unanimously to Julia Gillard out of conviction that a swift, coup-like dispatch of Rudd was the best political option.

The Prime Minister, in a fairly flat performance, detailed her achievements and emphasised that she was capable of getting things done, in spite of the political cost, particularly emphasising the carbon pricing package. She repeatedly made what has become the talking point of the day for her, that Monday’s ballot was not “an episode of Celebrity Big Brother”, as a way of counteracting Rudd’s argument that only he had the vote-winning potential to defeat Tony Abbott.

Unfortunately for Labor, elections are popularity contests, and Gillard is currently highly unpopular.

Kevin Rudd gave a strong performance, reserving particular venom for Tony Abbott and mounting the most effective attack on the Leader of the Opposition seen during the life of the Gillard government, declaring his ideas on the NBN were from the 1990s, his ideas on climate change were from the 1960s and his views on women were from the 1950s.

However, Rudd pointedly refused to engage on the issue of his previous backgrounding of journalists — and in fact seemed to issue a veiled warning that journalists breaking his confidecne would be breaching their professional obligations. The contrast with Julia Gillard, who earlier today declared that journalists were free to reveal anything she had said to them undermining of Prime Minister Rudd, whether off the record of not, was (to use Rudd’s own phrase) stark. Regardless of his attempt to duck the question, Rudd’s response seemed to confirm that he has been engaged in exactly what many in the Gillard camp have accused him of but which they have been unable to prove – criticising the PM to journalists.

A sharp piece by the excellent Andrew Probyn today backed this up.

Rudd also made a significant concession, one that appeared to demonstrate his struggle for strong Caucus numbers: he committed to returning to Caucus the power to nominate the frontbench, which he seized before the 2007 election amid attacks by John Howard and Peter Costello (ironically, based on the suggestion Julia Gillard would be Rudd’s Treasurer, not Wayne Swan). Gillard retained the power after Rudd’s demise, and it has been a sore point with backbenchers ever since.

Rudd also appeared to stumble on the issue of the carbon pricing package, declaring he wanted to move to an emissions trading scheme after six months, rather than the current three year period for a fixed-price scheme. His comments drew a swift rebuke from the Greens’ Christine Milne, who said the 3-year introductory period was crucial for establishing the scheme.

But Rudd really fired the Gillard camp for its argument, most notably advanced by Wayne Swan in his vitriolic, OTT attack on Rudd on Wednesday night, that Rudd was responsible for all the Gillard government’s problem, pointedly noting that he had been off the political radar for an extended period in 2011 due to cardiac surgery and yet the government’s woes had continued during that time. It wasn’t “K. Rudd” — Rudd referring to himself in the third person — who had made a series of crucial mistakes such as on the “East Timor solution” (which he called “a walk on the policy wild side”) and a commitment not to introduce a carbon tax.

While Rudd left the impression he has indeed been less than the loyal minister he has previously suggested, there was no doubting who had the more effective cut-through delivery today. Julia Gillard was the same, rather stolid figure we’ve had for eighteen months, declaring she could beat Tony Abbott and insisting her unpopularity was the price of tough decisions. Rudd was more like the effective campaigner of 2007, the man who outwitted John Howard, caught the public mood and rode it into the Lodge.

Once Rudd became Prime Minister, particularly in 2010, when as a communicator he sank into a swamp of prolixity. But, for the moment, Kevin 07 is back.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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