Back from the brink

- Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
- Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Prime Minister Julia Gillard faces an uphill battle rebuilding her party's shattered brand after Labor's crippling leadership crisis ended in farce on Thursday with a party-room spill devoid of a challenger.

The crisis, which has ended Kevin Rudd's claim on the leadership, also prompted a vote of no-confidence in Parliament, and brought the self-inflicted implosion of another former Labor leader, Simon Crean.

Another frontbencher, parliamentary secretary Richard Marles, stepped down after rounding on the former prime minister.

More senior government members who backed Mr Rudd are expected to follow. Deputy whips Ed Husic and Janelle Saffin resigned and the Chief Whip Joel Fitzgibbon said he would go.

Human Services Minister Kim Carr (Victoria) and Higher Education Minister Chris Bowen (NSW) are rumored to be facing the chop in a planned reshuffle for actively backing the Rudd push, but Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and Leader of the House Anthony Albanese is expect to survive.

The recriminations from the Rudd camp went further. Mr Crean, who sparked the challenge by calling for a spill, offering himself as deputy leader and professing his support for Mr Rudd, was bitter that Mr Rudd revealed he would not put his name forward 15 minutes before the contest was due to take place. ''He should have run. There's no question about that,'' he said. ''There's no way that he can countenance or credibly argue that his position should be taken seriously.''

Mr Crean was the most senior immediate casualty of the ructions after being sacked by Ms Gillard.

Ms Gillard's supporters were also incensed. Defence Minister Stephen Smith said: ''There is a range of people that need to seriously consider what they now do.''

Ms Gillard and Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan emerged unchallenged from a brief ALP caucus meeting hastily called for 4.30pm, despite months of white-anting by disgruntled MPs, and a fortnight during which their leadership faced an existential crisis.

Mr Rudd stunned colleagues when he announced minutes before the caucus meeting that he would not contest the leadership, arguing he was sticking to his commitment not to challenge Ms Gillard.

But it was clear the push had stalled short of the 51 votes required for victory leading him to vacate the field rather than face another humiliating defeat at the hands of colleagues.

With the mood in Labor now as

poisonous as at any time in living memory, a senior source close to the leadership expressed contempt for the whole affair.

''The fact that Rudd didn't put up shows how they'd overegged their numbers to try to destabilise Gillard,'' the figure said.

''Even a Gillard win by a reduced margin from what happened in February last year would've been a victory for them. It's very telling Rudd didn't nominate - shows the broad support they've been briefing the media about for weeks was an illusion.''

The source said the ''real victim'' was Mr Crean ''who was killed by Rudd's people and left lying on the side of the road''.

Gillard loyalist Bill Shorten said the air had been well and truly cleared. ''It's been a big and eventful day. We've got a strong leader that's unanimously endorsed by her team and I think the end of the day speaks for itself.''

A triumphant Ms Gillard, flanked by Mr Swan, told reporters she now wanted to get back to governing. ''The whole business is completely at an end. It has ended now.

''I never sought office for its own sake. I have only sought office in the interests of our nation. We've got a lot of work to do, and we'll continue to do it.''

Labor MPs decided their loathing for Mr Rudd and their anger at the destabilisation was greater than their confidence that any change would succeed in rescuing the party, which has a primary vote stuck around 30 per cent, according to recent polls.

Senior minister and prominent backer of Mr Rudd in last year's unsuccessful challenge, Anthony Albanese, supported Mr Rudd's decision not to proceed.

''I believe that Kevin Rudd has made the right decision in the party's interests.''

At a news conference, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stepped up his demand for an election.

''The message that the people of Australia has received from this government is that … the civil war goes on. The civil war will continue as long as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are in the Parliament.''

This story Back from the brink first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.