Back in 1992, the then Labor leader and prime minister, Paul Keating, looked across the table in the House of Representatives to eyeball the recently installed Liberal opposition leader, Dr John Hewson, who had spent most of question time demanding to know why Keating would not call an election.

The reason, Keating said, was because he wasn’t ready and, looking Hewson in the eye he said, ‘Because I intend to do you slowly’.
Today’s Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, now has the strategic choice before him as to how best to exploit the Liberal party’s leadership disaster.

Make no mistake: the next election is going to be a Labor land-slide.

The Liberal party is in total disarray, with the non-Labor side of politics looking remarkably like the disorganised and imploded wreck that the United Australia Party was ahead of its thrashing in the 1943 election (this was a significant year, because, within 12 months, the UAP was dispensed with and a new party – the Liberal party – created in its place).

It would be going too far to forecast that the Liberal party is going to collapse, for clearly it will not.

What the party is going through at the moment is a rather dramatic convulsion as it tries to accommodate that it is no longer the party of government.

Old antipathies between moderates and conservatives that had been brewing through the Howard years but suppressed by the need to remain united and disciplined when in government are now free to be acted upon.

Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and the ETS debate have provided the perfect forum in which these tensions could find expression.

Added to this has been the antipathy towards Malcolm Turnbull himself. Brilliant and dynamic as he might be, Turnbull’s position in the Liberal party has always been weak. He got into parliament by stacking out local branches to deny pre-selection of the previous member for Wentworth.

This was done without the support or participation of the NSW Liberal executive, meaning that Turnbull’s power-base in the party was basically confined to the local level.
This proved to be significant when he was under siege particularly from the ultra-conservatives in the party clustered in the Senate.

Senators usually get pre-selection to the upper house because they have strong support in the executives of the various state Liberal divisions.

The attack on Turnbull’s leadership was possible mainly because Turnbull had few weapons available to him to punish disloyalty to his leadership.

Without a solid and overwhelmingly large block of support in the parliamentary party, Turnbull’s political future was always going to be bleak.

As if this hasn’t been disastrous enough, Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal party has also resulted in damage to the relationship between the Liberals and its coalition partner, the Nationals.

This damage was inflicted mainly through Turnbull’s management of the opposition’s approach to the Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
In short, the opposition is unelectable and will lose the next election probably in a land-slide.

The question now is: how will Rudd and Labor respond in their bid to exploit the situation?

One option would be for Rudd to go to an election as quickly as possible.

There have been plenty of defeated bits of legislation other than the ETS bills that could be used as a trigger for a double dissolution election were Rudd to go down the path of an early election.
This would look like an attractive option, but Rudd needs to exercise caution here.

A double dissolution election for the Senate could result in the upper house being filled with minor party and independent senators.

Labor would be keen to get rid of Family First’s Steve Fielding and to limit the influence of South Australian senator Nick Xenophon.

Were Labor to call on a double dissolution election, Fielding could win back his seat, and senator Xenophon would probably be returned possibly with a running-mate.
On the other hand, if Rudd were to wait until after July 2010 to call an election, a half-Senate election would be required.
Senator Xenophon would not need to go back to the electorate, and senator Fielding would probably lose his seat.

Meanwhile, the Greens would be guaranteed of winning only one seat in Tasmania.

There are solid political reasons for Rudd to delay going to the polls, and they have everything to do with the Senate.

Labor need not rush in trying to exploit the Liberal party’s leadership crisis.
The animosity and factionalism is deep seated in the Liberal party, and it won’t go away quickly.

It may well be that Rudd takes a leaf from the Keating book, and seeks to ‘do’ the Liberals slowly.

Dr Economou is a senior lecturer in Politics at Monash University.