With leadership speculation rife, Australia’s ruling Labor Party fires up the barbie

The biggest question confronting Australians this morning was not whether Madonna "reigned supreme" it at the Super Bowl yesterday.

(That's right, one of Australia's "free-to-air" channels, SBS — long regarded the country's only truly multi-ethnic broadcaster — threw ratings caution to the wind screened it here.)

It was whether the unstable and shifting nature of the country's Labor leadership was actually an issue worth worrying about or just a media beat-up.

Down Under's going to take and each-way bet on this one and say both.

Perhaps one leads to the other: constant media speculation about the viability of Julia Gillard's prime ministership in the face of a possible leadership challenge by Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd (her predecessor in the top job) makes it true. Or vice versa.

Either way, the Gillard vs. Rudd story just won't go away, despite all the pleas in the world to let the two get on and do their "jobs" — respectively to govern the country, and to convince the rest of the world that somebody is doing so. 

Add to this a third, fairly crucial element — voter opinion — and you have full-blown, unequivocal, leadership speculation inside and outside of the halls of power in Canberra. 

A new public opinion poll out Monday showed that Gillard is less popular than Rudd.

According to the Fairfax Media, which commissioned the Nielsen poll:

Rudd is preferred as prime minister by 57 percent of voters compared with 35 percent for Gillard. In October, Rudd led by 61 percent to 30 percent.

However, about one-quarter of those who back Rudd — who Gillard helped remove as leader in a brutal Labor Party room coup in mid-2010 — apparently do not believe he should run for the leadership.

And the poll further showed that while an overall majority of voters would prefer Rudd back as leader, a slim majority of Labor supporters back Gillard.

The poll also showed encouraging news for the minority Labor government's prospects of surviving next year's election in that Gillard's rating as preferred prime minister rose 6 points to 48 percent, while Opposition leader Tony Abbott's stayed at 46 percent.

If Gillard's worried by the polling and the speculation and the media, and the near constant criticism of her performance in office, she's not showing it, steadily insisting that she will lead Labor to next election. 

She held a moral-boosting barbecue for met with Labor lawmakers in the capital Canberra on Monday ahead of the official opening of the parliamentary year.

Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, who hails from Rudd's home town of Brisbane, indicated that over some bangers (sausages) and — one can only hope — beers with Gillard, lawmakers expressed their support. 

"Our prime minister has the strong support of our caucus," Swan said on Australia's ABC TV after the shindig. "She is someone who is getting things done."

His Labor party Deb O'Neill struck a less unifying — yet arguably effective — tone, reportedly telling Rudd supporters to ''suck it up and move on''.

Gillard, meanwhile, stayed on-message, listing her government's achievements and suggesting that global economic change was creating public anxiety.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, she said the ''tough decisions'' Labor made last year — such as putting a price on carbon against formidable opposition by the mining industry  — had caused political pain but would yield benefits this year in the form of tax cuts and pension rises.

She allowed herself the quip that while questions about her leadership status were "endlessly fascinating" to some, they did not consume her.

Who said being Australia's first woman prime minister leading a minority government under attack over its major policies while failing dismally in the polls was going to be easy. 

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