LAST week, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities Bill Shorten went to see Julia Gillard and told her to challenge Kevin Rudd.
It was the start of the coup that ended in remarkable fashion the Rudd era.
Shorten, the ambitious former union boss from the Victorian Right, told the loyal deputy prime minister he was not “yet” talking on behalf of his entire faction.
But he assured Gillard he was confident that if she made a strong play for the leadership, he could deliver her the numbers to win.
The secret conversation came after weeks of meetings, organised by Victorian senator David Feeney and NSW senator Steve Hutchins, at which Labor MPs savaged Rudd’s leadership.
The MPs expounded on their latest gloomy polling results, their diminishing electoral prospects and Rudd’s divisive style.
Their hatred for him was becoming so strong many were saying they wanted to destroy his leadership immediately.
In NSW, senior members of the Right faction were forming the view that disastrous polls signalled that Labor was headed for certain defeat. NSW Right powerbroker Mark Arbib was making it clear he would back a spill.
Senior Labor MPs formed the view that Labor’s heartland in western Sydney was turning away from Rudd and there was a danger “Howard’s battlers” would go to Tony Abbott. These fears were later confirmed in Newspoll surveys in marginal seats.
But it wasn’t until Shorten, a former national secretary of the AWU, asked Gillard for a meeting that events leading to yesterday’s unprecedented change of leadership began to gather pace.
So Gillard has known for a week that the Right factions were backing her.
Her allies say she declined Shorten’s offer, arguing it was not the right time to strike. But the seed Shorten had planted grew. As MPs went home for the weekend, many were anxiously anticipating Newspoll. They knew that the results would give them ammunition to go for Rudd’s throat.
Rudd knew that if he went further backwards in the polls, MPs might strike against him.
On Saturday, The Weekend Australian reported that MPs were backing Gillard for a challenge.
Despite Rudd’s confident public face, he was acutely aware that MPs were coming after him.
He and his team of young advisers worked on a strategy for survival. The team, headed by chief of staff Alister Jordan decided that if Rudd survived this week’s caucus meeting his leadership would be safe.
But they made one major miscalculation. They made backbenchers angry by sending in Rudd’s young chief of staff to provide a political fix.
It was reports that Mr Rudd had sent Jordan to canvass backbenchers on his leadership – in the process questioning Gillard’s loyalty – that was the last straw.
One source said the anger was palpable after former minister Bob Debus received a text message from Jordan during the caucus meeting on Tuesday.
The text essentially said “thanks for speaking and defending Kevin”. The impersonal and bizarre message was seen as a nervous Rudd shoring up his numbers against Gillard – while she was still maintaining her loyalty.
Gillard was angered by the report and by news that Debus had been text messaged during caucus. She regarded Rudd questioning of her loyalty as treacherous. It entrenched her view that Rudd was out of control.
At 9am on Wednesday, Feeney and Arbib, walked into Gillard’s office and offered her the leadership. They promised that if she acted, they would deliver her the numbers to give her the prime ministership. She agreed to consider. Later Shorten visited again to urge her to run.
Later Agriculture Minister Tony Burke also came into her office to tell her she had his support.
Her numbers were swelling. Frontbenchers were all falling her way. They told her to either fix the crisis in government and tell Rudd to fundamentally change, or take over – immediately.
She made a commitment to see Rudd. She went to Defence Minister John Faulkner – the party’s elder statesman and peace broker – to complain. She told him it was unacceptable – that Rudd was out of control and she was furious.
Faulkner is one of the only men Rudd listens to and takes control when the party looks like it is falling apart.
Before question time on Wednesday, Rudd walked into Gillard’s office to accuse her of undermining his leadership. She told him she was furious.
They agreed to meet after question time. Gillard was intense during question time. In hindsight it was obvious that something was weighing heavily on her.
While The Australian was working on a story on a mounting challenge – the ABC news went to air with a report that a challenge was on.
One factional powerbroker says that after that “It was like watching a bushfire; suppressed rage which sped up and got momentum”.
Gillard and Faulkner then walked into Rudd’s office where they endured a lengthy meeting. He wanted them to back off, Gillard became even more resolved to take him on.
They left, and after a short time, returned again to deliver him the news that a challenge was on.
At yesterday’s caucus meeting Rudd stood up and said he believed Gillard and he had worked out a compromise in their first meeting last night. “I thought we were capable of working our way through but when she returned she called it on.”
He was implying that the factional bosses had pushed it – and killed a potential compromise.
He also effectively blamed Gillard and Wayne Swan for the decision to shelve the emissions trading scheme, a key policy reversal which triggered his decline in the polls. He blamed the troubled resources super-profits tax on Swan.
But those close to Gillard said she never undertook to work with him. After Gillard emerged from the meeting with Rudd – and the challenge was on, Anthony Albanese, who was once the man who counted numbers for Kim Beazley, offered to count numbers for Rudd.
It become obvious to the man known as “Albo” that Rudd was not even close to winning.
Late Wednesday night he went and delivered Rudd the devastating news that his leadership was over, that his numbers had collapsed.
Gillard’s numbers men knew they had the numbers even before they started counting them late on Wednesday night – there were so many MPs who feld disenfranchised by Rudd and his office that they were rushing to sign up to her camp.
Rudd shocked many yesterday when he stood aside and didn’t defend his leadership.
He gave a sombre speech, which was both “statesmanlike” but also dug the knife into Gillard and Swan – essentially blaming them for the RSPT and the abandonment of an ETS.
He stopped two or three times to fight back tears.
At the end of his speech, he was approached by MPs and frontbenchers who shook his hand and thanked him for his work.
Gillard was Prime Minister at the end of the caucus meeting without one vote counted.