Key federal independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor have warned Australians could be going to the polls early if Labor changes leaders.
Mr Oakeshott, Mr Windsor and other cross-benchers have an agreement with Prime Minister Julia Gillard to support her minority government until an election due around September 2013.
But both NSW MPs sounded a warning on Friday that the agreement could be torn up if Labor MPs and union leaders kept publicly speculating about a change of party leadership and whether Kevin Rudd could help them win the next election.
Labor leadership speculation intensified this week after comments by government whip Joel Fitzgibbon, who cast doubt on Ms Gillard’s ability to keep her job without a lift in the polls.
“If the Labor Party is more interested in focusing on the next election, then I will do what I can to oblige them with that next election,” Mr Oakeshott told AAP on Friday.
Mr Oakeshott said his intervention had been sparked by the “ongoing leadership speculation in the public domain”.
“(The speculation) is a demonstration of a number of people within the Labor Party who are focusing on the next election rather than focusing on a very full policy agenda,” he said.
That agenda included the Gonski education review, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, jobs, tax reform, the Murray-Darling Basin’s future, and water and soil security.
Mr Windsor said his written agreement was with Ms Gillard and her deputy Wayne Swan.
“My consistent position has been that this agreement is not transferable and ‘all bets would be off’ if there was a change of leader,” Mr Windsor said in a statement.
“Obviously the formation of government occurs on the floor of the house, not in written agreements.
“A change of leaders would be a high risk strategy that would open up the option of an early election.”
Mr Swan said newspaper reports about leadership tensions were “not worth the paper they’re written on”.
Ms Gillard is hosting a regular meeting with union bosses at the Lodge in Canberra on Friday night, but says the leadership issue was settled at the February caucus ballot.
Transport Workers Union boss Tony Sheldon has reportedly threatened to withdraw campaign funds from Labor if Mr Rudd is returned to the top job.
Australian Workers Union secretary Paul Howes said on Twitter that talk of a leadership change was “BS” and “all unions are united in supporting the PM”.
Speaking to reporters in New York, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said Labor was too focused on itself and not on “strong and effective government”.
“This is part of the Labor Party’s problem. It looks to be the plaything of the faceless men … not the servant of the Australian people,” he said.
Later, on his way into the Lodge Mr Sheldon pointedly refused to answer questions about whether he had indeed threatened to withdraw $200,000 in political donations if Mr Rudd was reinstated.
Instead he slammed the “billionaires’ club backed by the conservatives”, which he said wanted to wipe out workers’ wages and conditions.
“I’ll back this prime minister, along with many other people across the trade union movement, because she’s determined to take that fight up,” Mr Sheldon told reporters.
“I have every confidence she’s the only person who’s got the capacity within the Labor Party to do that.”
The TWU boss said those trying to destabilise Ms Gillard’s leadership comprised “such a small group”.
Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association national secretary Joe de Bruyn said the union movement was “fully supportive” of the prime minister. He denied it was blackmailing Labor MPs and senators.
“The caucus always makes up its own mind as to what it wants to do,” Mr de Bruyn told reporters.
“There’s no such thing as blackmail at all.”