Australia govt seeks to douse leadership speculation

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Senior Australian ministers sought to douse speculation that former leader Kevin Rudd is preparing a leadership challenge against Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who unseated Rudd last year to trigger dead-heat elections.

Environment Minister Tony Burke dismissed news reports — fuelled by the government’s conservative rivals — that the now Foreign Minister Rudd believed he was nine votes short of a leadership return, calling them “absolutely not true”.

“This is a beat up,” Burke told Australian television. “This is a journalist who has heard from a member of the (opposition) Liberal Party about a conversation with a member of the Labor Party, who reckons he heard what was being said on the other end of the phone.”

Gillard’s leadership has been under pressure since a high court ruling last month left her immigration policy in disarray and added to growing public perceptions of government incompetence and failure. Parliament is now in a two-week break, which will ease immediate political pressure on Gillard.

But repeated polls show her Labor Party, which has a one-seat majority with the backing of green and independent allies, would be easily swept from office in an election were held now, although the next national vote is not due for two more years.

An Age/Nielsen poll this month showed Labor could win an election if it reinstalled Rudd as leader, although political analysts believe a party coup would also cement voter perception of Labor as dysfunctional.

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