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AN embattled Julia Gillard secretly offered to stand down as prime minister in June 2013 and secure the leadership for cabinet colleague Greg Combet in order to fend off Kevin Rudd, Mr Combet has revealed.
But dogged by months of ill-health, and unsure that a switch to a third leader so close to an election would improve Labor’s position, the then climate change and industry minister declined the chance to be prime minister.
‘‘I was struggling a good deal personally by the time June  came around,’’ Mr Combet told Fairfax Media in an interview this week. ‘‘I was in constant pain with the problems that I was having, and the thought of taking on additional responsibility and not being 100 per cent fit to do it, in that febrile environment, it didn’t look easy.’’
He says he took a week or so to consider his ‘‘gut-wrenching’’ decision, which he discussed with his partner, ABC-TV newsreader Juanita Phillips.
But by the time Ms Gillard put the ‘‘extraordinary and generous proposition’’ he was already ‘‘90 per cent gone’’ from federal politics.
Mr Combet concedes his exit dashed the hopes of many inside Labor who viewed him as a future leader, including former leaders Kim Beazley and Bob Hawke.
In a book co-authored with Mark Davis, The Fights of My Life, Mr Combet provides new insights into the toxic and ‘‘vicious’’ atmosphere which engulfed the parliamentary party in the run-up to the September 2013 election.
By early June, Ms Gillard was desperate to prevent a Rudd return, while the Rudd forces were equally determined to force her to stand aside without a party-room vote. Mr Combet advised Ms Gillard to bring on a ballot to ‘‘flush’’ out Mr Rudd. In response, he writes, ‘‘she spoke to me privately and said she would stand aside if I stood against Rudd’’.
She told him that ‘‘my view is that Labor’s electoral position would be best served by moving to a new leader, and I think you are the best person to take it on … I will muster as much support as I can for you. I don’t know if it will be enough to get you over the line, but you are held in high regard and I would do everything I could to persuade people to switch their support to you.’’
Mr Combet writes that after declining Ms Gillard’s offer, he urged Mr Rudd to come out of the shadows, resulting in what he claims was a payback leak by Mr Rudd against him.
Mr Rudd was suspicious of Mr Combet’s union background – the latter had come into politics after being president of the ACTU – and told him when first offering him a junior frontbench position after the 2007 election that ‘‘you are going to have to be deunionised first’’.
Mr Combet writes: ‘‘After spending my life in the union movement, the idea that I needed to be cleansed of my union past was pretty offensive.’’
He remains convinced that Mr Beazley would have won the 2007 election and become a highly successful prime minister if Mr Rudd had not dislodged him.
ACTU polling as part of the Your Rights At Work Campaign in the run-up to the 2007 election left him ‘‘completely convinced Beazley would have won’’, which would have resulted in a ‘‘vastly more experienced, mature person as prime minister presiding over, for want of a better description, a really grown-up government, avoiding all the mistakes’’.
‘‘Neither Julia nor Kevin had had a lot of experience in leadership roles and I think that impacted on their capacity to do the job,’’ Mr Combet told Fairfax Media.
Mr Combet battled illness and near-constant pain for much of his time as minister, including a vascular condition in one leg, and osteoporosis which left him with neck, shoulder and arm pain.
‘‘It was the most difficult time of my working life’’, he recalls.
While he does not regret his decision to leave parliament, he says it will not be the end of his political activism and the work he and others put into a carbon pricing scheme will pay off in future, despite the Abbott government’s axing of the carbon tax last week.
‘‘This is a battle that’s [been] lost, but it’s not the war. [Labor] has to keep fighting.’’