Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd

Here comes a Labor leadership article. Those of you who revile such things: look away now.

This is not to add to the acres and acres of analysis given over to Labor’s options, which are, in the end, pretty simple: current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, former prime minister Kevin Rudd or none of the above. It’s similar to the leadership question the Liberals faced in the late ’80s while John Howard and Andrew Peacock were engaged in a toxic feud, albeit in opposition. The Liberals tried one, then the other, then went back to the first, then opted for none of the above, repeated the dose, then settled for the other. It turned out OK for them. There are limits to the analogy, however: Rudd is unlikely to go off to America and knock around with Shirley MacLaine.

It’s more to raise this point: barring a huge victory to the Coalition in September of the kind that hands a Senate majority to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, there are not one but two elections Labor needs to consider: the one in September, and the one that Abbott has in effect offered a blood oath to hold in order to obtain a repeal of the carbon price.

Abbott has repeatedly made a point of distinguishing himself from Labor in regard to election commitments: he will keep them to a minimum, he says, because he knows that he cannot risk not fulfilling them. The man who would have ridden his campaign against Gillard’s untrustworthiness all the way to the Lodge will not be able to risk ditching a key promise like repealing the carbon price. Without a Senate majority, he must rely on Labor caving in and supporting repeal, or go to an election sometime in 2014 or early 2015.

Abbott will enter his prime ministership from the unique position of being disliked by much of the electorate. He may well be vulnerable if forced to an election by his own promise of a repeal of the carbon price — particularly if he’s up against an proven, electorally popular politician like Kevin Rudd, who was even more effective as opposition leader in 2007 than Abbott has been since 2009.

It’s by no means a certain scenario: the Liberals could dump Abbott for former leader Malcolm Turnbull or shadow treasurer Joe Hockey and thereby escape a difficult double dissolution election. Abbott might prove a popular prime minister. His current deep unpopularity with the electorate could vanish once he takes the mantle of national leader. This is a man, after all, who has surprised many of us with his remarkable performance as Opposition Leader, and he has demonstrated a Howard-esque pragmatism in realising he has to leave many of his own obsessions behind if he is to be an effective leader.

“… Rudd’s reported reluctance to take the leadership before the election even if Gillard were to step aside starts to make more sense.”

Or after a big defeat, Labor MPs might cave in and support repeal, glad to be rid of the scheme foisted on them by the Greens in minority government. Abbott could dump his blood oath promise, although that’s highly unlikely, or more plausibly declare his promise fulfilled if he introduces repeal but can’t get it through the Senate, saying voters could help him fix the problem at the 2016 election.

Most likely of all, the Liberals might win control of the Senate, particularly if they snare four spots in WA at the expense of Scott Ludlam. Their current performance in Victoria and Queensland suggests it’s a tough ask, but if anti-abortion Katter Party Senator John Madigan holds the balance of power, repeal might be a chance of passage, assuming an Abbott government is happy to trade off women’s rights and lives here or overseas.

But looking at the following election rather than this one, Rudd’s reported reluctance to take the leadership before the election even if Gillard were to step aside starts to make more sense. A big defeat would remove Gillard and current Treasurer Wayne Swan from the leadership, and allow Rudd more of a fresh start than he’d get currently.

That immensely complicates the leadership issue, as it means Rudd might be hanging around when the party might have thought it would be time to move to the next generation of leaders, like Defence Minister Stephen Smith (who’s unknown and comes from Perth) or Employment Minister Bill Shorten (who needs more time in Parliament and in the public eye before he’s ready for the top job).

But everyone eyeing the leadership has this in common — they need Labor to perform well enough in September to be a threat at the following election, and in particular they need the Coalition to miss out on control of the Senate, giving Labor the option of forcing a double dissolution election on the carbon scheme. That could mean trying to ensure the Greens hang on in WA and pick up a Senate spot in Victoria and NSW.

Or Gillard can lead Labor to an unlikely but not impossible victory, which would confound everyone, not just aspirants for her leadership.