"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where -" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"- so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question.
- Lewis Carroll Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Kevin Rudd will leave politics when the media stop listening to him en masse. He will not go when this or that commentator says he must. He would not go if a clear or even overwhelming majority of the refashioned Labor caucus begs him to go. When the Canberra press gallery stops listening to him, he will have to find other avenues to get his message out, and that will involve him leaving politics.
All any politician wants is to be quoted in the media (except Jaymes Diaz, perhaps, which is why he hasn't been elected as a politician). Over the past three years Rudd and Tony Abbott achieved that without having much to say. There was the Gillard government, churning out detailed policies over, well, everything across the gamut of federal government really; Rudd and Abbott ignored them and insisted that they could do better. They didn't need to offer any proof because the press gallery took them at their word.
Imagine what it must have been like in the press gallery just a few weeks ago: see the poor beleaguered scribes staggering under a weight of detailed policy documents issued by a reforming government. All of a sudden one looks up and squeals: "Look everyone, it's Joel Fitzgibbon!". Nek minnit poor Joel is running away, professing his loyalty to the ALP and its leader, while the press gallery pursues him like the opening scene from A Hard Day's Night. Hysteria and ill-considered blather in the politico-media complex makes Rudd possible. Once that dies away, or changes focus, the environment that nurtures Rudd becomes hostile to him.
What's changed? Today's slow-media assault suggests that anyone from the ALP who wants to go on about their party's leadership for old time's sake will still get a good run. I was astonished at how cliche-stonkered and generally badly written this was, and it was by no means the worst of the commentary on this subject. So long as this continues, the idea that Rudd might simply opt out is the product of people who don't understand politics and have no business commentating on it.
Labor people have no more control over the press gallery now than they did when in office: they can't force them to ignore Rudd. People who follow politics closely can stop reading stories about Rudd, but press gallery journos care nothing for what people actually pick up on (this is poorly measured by clickthrough rates). One day the press gallery will decide that Rudd is no longer a story.
You won't see them run stories like that because they have no capacity for self-reflection: banal campaigns are the parties' fault, or even your fault; never than that of journalists, toward whom campaigning is tailored. Rudd was elected leader last June at the very point when the press gallery had started to 'play down' the prospect that he might challenge at all.
Leaving aside recent history (post-Keating) in the federal ALP, and final years of the Democrats (where, befitting a party of ex-teachers, Everyone Must Have A Turn), most leaders depart when defeated. Malcolm Fraser was the last party leader to have a problem with ex-leaders hanging around. In the late 1970s he gave John Gorton and Billy McMahon GCMG knighthoods. Gorton took the hint and was gone within weeks. McMahon didn't, leaving at the worst possible time (the 1982 by-election for McMahon's seat of Lowe was a harbinger of defeat for Fraser's government).
Rudd won't leave because his party want him to, and nor would his timing be influenced by his party's best interests. Labor have to consider whether a by-election loss would be worse than having Rudd stick around.
When and if the press gallery brush aside Rudd and his minions, and run stories that relate in no way to what they say, do, think, or want, then he will be extinguished politically and, in a way perhaps, personally.
When Rudd leaves politics it will take the press gallery by surprise. Even Peter Hartcher has deserted him and is unconvincingly currying favour with a new government that doesn't need him. The gallery will have no right to be surprised, and they will lose credibility for being caught out on a matter which is eminently forseeable and which 'insiders' exist to get across; there will be the usual excuses about "24 hour news cycle" (which rarely affects the press gallery anyway) or whatever. Basically insider journalism is little more than a make-work scheme for 'insiders' and not nearly as valuable (or even as valid) as they would like to believe.