Former MP Maxine McKew has reopened Labor wounds over the events of June 2010 with her account of her brief period in politics and again focused attention on the roles of both Julia Gillard herself and the Labor Party machine in the removal of Kevin Rudd from the Prime Ministership.

In Tales from the political trenches, the staunchly pro-Rudd McKew suggests Gillard was involved in the plot to overthrow him and that claims about the dysfunctionality of his prime ministership were a cover story for a union of Gillard’s ambition and the resentment of key factional powerbrokers about their lack of influence over Rudd.

It’s an account bitterly contested by a range of cabinet ministers who need little prompting to detail, often at length, just how poor an executive Rudd was.

But McKew’s account has focused attention on the role of internal party polling in Rudd’s overthrow; part of her chapter on the events of June 2010 is devoted to the way the plotters used qualitative polling commissioned by Labor’s Victorian branch and conducted by UMR in early June, which purported to demonstrate the superior electoral appeal of Gillard. McKew quotes Rudd supporter Robert McClelland as claiming close Gillard ally Brendan O’Connor showed him the polling, a claim point-blank denied yesterday by O’Connor, and an unnamed MP who says Gillard herself showed them the polling “in the days prior to the coup” — a claim that would be explosive if it could be verified.

McKew also quotes Labor veteran John Faulkner, a key participant in the events of June 23, 2010 who has held his counsel ever since, calling the use of internal research to undermine a party leader “sheer bastardry”.

Labor MPs have told Crikey there was more than one set of polling in circulation in Parliament House in the days leading up to and on the night of 23 June. In addition to the UMR research discussed by McKew, Karl Bitar, former NSW party secretary and by then national secretary, and key plotter Mark Arbib — a pairing effectively joined at the hip — also showed or tried to show to MPs NSW marginal seat polling demonstrating a disastrous outcome, particularly in western Sydney, if the party persevered with Rudd. NSW Labor had lost the state seat of Penrith on an anti-Labor swing of more than 24% on June 19.

A number of MPs told Lenore Taylor in 2010 that the polling was a critical factor in their decision to back the putsch against Rudd.

But Rudd was by no means the first Labor leader to be the victim of internal polling. Internal polling and the leaking of internal party review material were used against Simon Crean and internal polling was used in NSW against Nathan Rees.

The tactic, and the implication of the party hierarchy working to undermine the parliamentary leader, incenses Faulkner sufficiently that he has been prepared to repeatedly go on the record on the issue. But he believes that the party is realising how poisonous it can be. “I do believe that there’s a growing acknowledgement that this sort of practice is unacceptable,” Faulkner told Crikey. “In recent times more party figures who hold positions of responsibility have accepted that these practices are totally unacceptable and should not be tolerated.”

Faulkner lashed out at the tactic in the aftermath of the 2010 election, when launching Rod Cavalier’s controversial account of the NSW Labor Party’s recent turmoil, Power Crisis, saying “the misuse and manipulation of party research to influence internal party affairs or parliamentary party ballots is just plain unconscionable.”

The widely-loathed Bitar, who is now an adviser to James Packer, was replaced by the unaligned and well-regarded George Wright as national secretary, and NSW Labor, seen as the source of much that is tactically and strategically wrong with Labor, is now overseen by Sam Dastyari, who has been pushing for internal party reform, including some of the reforms advocated by Faulkner along with Bob Carr and Steve Bracks in their review of the 2010 election campaign. Dastyari did not respond to Crikey’s request for comment.

Peter Fray

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