Leadership rivals wait to see who blinks first

Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo: Andrew Meares
Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo: Andrew Meares

''You call it on.'' ''No, I'm not doing it - it's up to you.'' The Rudd and Gillard camps might sound like a couple of juveniles, but each is fighting for tactical advantage as the leadership row simmers a fraction below boilover point.

Neither sees advantage in being the first mover. Each side can only get away with inflating its candidate's level of support when it is still in the realm of the hypothetical.

Both sides are vulnerable because the numbers are fluid and they would change once a time was set for a vote.

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Strategy: Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions could be foiled if he mounts a challenge without enough support among the caucus.

Strategy: Kevin Rudd's leadership ambitions could be foiled if he mounts a challenge without enough support among the caucus. Photo: AFP

Julia Gillard doesn't want to forfeit the advantage of incumbency. Come and get me if you can, she is saying. Calling a ballot would be a sign of weakness and might well add to Kevin Rudd's momentum. Similarly, sacking him for disloyalty would just be a ''game on'' declaration, not only lifting all restraint on him but risking making him something of a martyr.

Despite claims Rudd has a two-stage strategy, the Foreign Minister could be stymied if he called a vote and his support was, say, only a quarter of the caucus (considerably less than the Rudd forces are claiming). The second challenge might then become difficult to crank up, especially given the hostility of many in the caucus to him.

The venom was on display yesterday. Once again, Simon Crean was out with a hot poker, prodding provocatively at Rudd. The strength of his attack is odd because it is known he has been critical of Gillard.

Crean denies he has leadership ambitions himself, but some believe that if Gillard eventually stood aside, he might run against Rudd. At present, however, there is no sign she would not fight to the end.

The Gillard-Rudd stand-off will have to be broken, though we don't know how and when.

In Queensland, where Labor faces defeat, Premier Anna Bligh and predecessor Peter Beattie are calling for an early resolution. Bligh would like the matter settled in favour of Rudd before the March 24 state election. She wants a bit of his popularity to rub off.

But the counter-argument is that if the leadership changed before a Queensland defeat, Rudd's reputation as a vote-puller would suffer and it would be a poor start to his leadership.

Former national secretary Bob Hogg describes this as the most unedifying spectacle he has seen - and he's seen a lot. Yesterday's prime ministerial news conference showed how surreal and dysfunctional Labor has become. The first half was devoted to the ground-breaking Gonski report on schools; then David Gonski departed and the journalists and PM got stuck into the leadership issue.

The Labor Party was simultaneously governing and imploding before our eyes.

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