Drumroll, then exit on a final cymbal crash

IN THE last days of the Keating empire a fellow named Bill Kelty gave a spectacular speech. ''If they want a fight, if they want a war, they'll have the full symphony, all the pieces, all the clashes and all the music,'' Kelty threatened. ''I am not sure it will be the 1812 Overture, but I will tell you what, Paul, it will not be Mahler either.''

Kelty was Paul Keating's close mate, the head of the ACTU. The 1996 election was only a couple of weeks away, the one that would make John Howard prime minister for near on 11 years.

The promise of war in the streets against Howard and his industrial relations agenda, even one as colourful as a full symphony with clashing cymbals, didn't do much for Keating's chances, which were long gone anyway.

Australians don't tend to rise up to Napoleonic cries to the barricades. They'd got it out of their systems at Gallipoli and the Western Front.

But Kelty, at least, was railing against Labor's political opponents. And it turned out he was being prescient. Howard a decade later faced the full symphony when he got around to enacting his WorkChoices legislation, inspiring Australians to march on him and his troops and overwhelm them.

This week another union leader decided it was time to sound a war cry.

Paul Howes, addressing his Australian Workers Union at that well-known workers' paradise, Jupiter's Casino, on the Queensland Gold Coast, chose a different target to that identified back in 1996 by Bill Kelty.

He took aim at his own side. There was no stirring music to it. It was an off-key lament about the enemy within.

''Nothing upsets me more lately than opening newspapers on a daily or weekly basis and reading anonymous quotes from 'senior Labor sources' undermining our Prime Minister, undermining the leadership of our movement and this country,'' he offered.

''What a bunch of gutless pricks they are that they can't put their names to what they are saying.''

Precisely, despondent Labor supporters might echo. Except, of course, this was Paul Howes speaking. Howes is the author of a book about himself. It's called Confessions of a Faceless Man.

Within its pages is the following paragraph concerning the lead-up to the death of former Labor leader Kevin Rudd's prime ministership.

''The phone rang and on the other end was a senior member of the federal ministry, telling me that the challenge to Kevin Rudd's prime ministership was on and could I please make my mind the f--- up about whether we'd support it and let him know in half an hour.''

A ''senior member of the federal ministry''? Howes couldn't bring himself to name him or her even in his own confessional. The allegedly tell-all paragraph continues:

''… the key 'plotters', or so they have been called - the 'faceless men', whom I was about to join - wanted me to come on board; they wanted an outside voice, a leader of the movement, backing their decision to give the process an air of legitimacy.''

There it is. This ''leader of the movement'' had accepted the invitation of an anonymous Labor minister to provide ''an air of legitimacy'' to a secret plot to get rid of a Labor prime minister, although to be fair, he put his name to his subsequent efforts. Thus was sown what has become a long, bitter harvest.

And now, suddenly, 2½ dreadful years later, he's seen the light. Those now plotting in the shadows to get rid of a Labor prime minister are ''gutless pricks''. You could hardly go past this example of high unctuousness if you were trying to diagnose the disease that is eating Labor's liver.

Howes is accurate, of course, even if he might not be the perfect figure to deliver the message. No matter how hard Julia Gillard or Wayne Swan might work on economic, health, education and taxation policy in an attempt to place their government in some form of competitive position, a noxious swamp of internal dissension bubbles below.

One of the more ghastly and elaborate metaphors being offered around Parliament House by the Rudd-friendly and Gillard-disdainers concerns, of all things, a cult horror-movie series called Saw.

The fact that these movies, from a genre known as ''torture porn'', are watched almost exclusively by pimply-faced kids who need to get out more, may, of course, say something about the state of political activism within modern Labor.

The analogy being whispered among the merciless, anyway, is drawn from the first of the Saw movies, in which a couple of unfortunate fellows awaken in a dank bathroom to discover that each has his right leg chained to a stout pipe secured to the wall.

They face a hideous test. One of them must kill the other by evening, they are informed. But there is the chance of escape for both: two hacksaw blades.

There is a choice. Avoid the agony and die, or remove their own feet and live. There is no halfway.

This ornate metaphor for Labor's dilemma has been dreamt up by one of Labor's own warriors, a fellow who has been around since the days of Keating and who has thus seen a bit of gore.

He is one of those Howes identifies as an anonymous source, although he has treated at least half the Labor caucus to his grim view for a year now, and it has been shared around by plenty of them.

The message needs no interpretation. The government is shackled and must either endure the pain of cutting itself free - of Julia Gillard, of course - or perish slowly.

But even this take-no-prisoners guerilla, handy with numbers, has no idea whether Kevin Rudd will ever get the opportunity to re-emerge from exile and replace Gillard. The Saw movies, he points out, often feature the trapped who simply can't bring themselves to embrace the dread option of removing their own limbs in a bid for deliverance.

Others put it more directly. There are too many who just can't bear Kevin Rudd.

Alternatively, Ms Gillard's greatest shield might prove to have been forged at the moment when Paul Howes and his mates completed the plot in mid-2010. Having got rid of one prime minister and installed another, to dubious benefit, it is entirely possible Labor has scared itself out of another such manoeuvre.

The Labor government could, of course, hope for a latter-day true believer to summon a vision of a symphonic cannonade against the actual opposition in an election year. It may not have worked all those years ago, but it lifted Paul Keating's spirits no end, and sounded rather more heroic than calling your own colleagues gutless pricks. If you fear you're going down, you may as well have the orchestra playing.

The story Drumroll, then exit on a final cymbal crash first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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