The year is 1999 and the Labor caucus is debating whether to support a Howard government amendment to capital gains taxation. The Victorian Right faction is in favour, and one of its henchmen, Stephen Conroy, makes a speech to that effect. He then sits down near Mark Latham and admits: ‘I didn’t believe a word of what I just said.’

After last week’s leadership schism, it is worth re-reading the Latham Diaries, from which the above anecdote was sourced. It remains the best insight we have into the chaotic and stupefying dysfunction of the Labor Party, and it paints a telling picture about villains such as Conroy who have now made certain the Government’s annihilation in September.

Conroy – who told Latham he had no strong policy interests – managed to lodge himself in the important portfolio of communications, in which his crowning achievements have been a failed attempt to censor the internet, a shocking inability to turn the National Broadcast Network into an electoral asset, and a kamikaze media reform package which merely picked a fight with the press on the cusp of an election.

Not many ministers in Australian politics have survived two humiliating backdowns on major policies, let alone actually furthered their position within the Prime Minister’s inner circle. But the tragedy of last week’s schism in the Labor Party is that this guy, and those of his ilk, won out. When Julia Gillard arrived at the ballot-that-wasn’t on 21 March, she was flanked by a veritable roll call of the most uninspiring and undeserving individuals in cabinet: Conroy, Wayne Swan and Craig Emerson foremost among them. That the caucus still wants them in charge, even after all the damage they’ve inflicted on the party, absolutely defies belief.

The new official line on Gillard is that she is ‘tough’. In the unending experiment of how to market the PM to Australia – which has seen incarnations as bizarre and cringeworthy as Real Julia, feminist icon and knitter-in-chief – this most recent turn is surely the most bemusing. Toughness is certainly an imperative in the Labor caucus, but is it an important quality for the electorate? Does it really poll better than ‘smart’, ‘competent’, ‘visionary’, ‘trustworthy’ or ‘fair’? Regrettably, none of those options is really on the table.

‘Tough’ might be an appropriate descriptor of Gillard the political operator, but it would be the wrong one to characterise her leadership. A tough leader, I believe, would not have capitulated to Tony Abbott and forced Kevin Rudd to dump the Emissions Trading Scheme. A tough leader would not have surrendered to the big miners and renegotiated the mining tax into insignificance, breaking the budget in the process. A tough leader would prosecute the case for Labor’s compassionate stance on asylum seekers, rather than racing the Coalition to the bottom of the scrapheap. A tough leader would stand up to the unions instead of abiding loyally on every question, from 457 visas to gay marriage.

In every instance, Gillard has shied away from fights on policy, and opted to orchestrate imagined battles around jobs, workplace rights and misogyny. Her leadership team has presided over the best economy in the developed world, but they couldn’t sell cake to a fat kid. They have proven themselves utterly incapable of doing what is actually tough in politics: arguing, educating and winning.

Meanwhile, those ministers who have actually displayed toughness and resolve have been systematically disenfranchised and disposed of. Lindsay Tanner tried valiantly but unsuccessfully within the so-called kitchen cabinet to resist Gillard and Swan’s determination to abandon the ETS. Martin Ferguson had the courage to laud the free-market legacy of Hawke and Keating, not just in his resignation speech but through his ministerial career. And who could imagine Swan or Gillard delivering the difficult, pained, stoic speech given by Simon Crean as he called for a spill on Thursday, driven by love of a party which was crumbling before him? Yet all these tough cookies were driven out. This is a government that defenestrates the talented and promotes the vacuous.

Gillard is not a tough leader, but a tough politician, as sneaky and ruthless as they come. Her resilience extends only as far as withering criticism and maintaining power in defiance of the overwhelming evidence that she should step aside. Granted, it must take willpower beyond comprehension to get up every morning and face such animosity – but these are the recriminations of her mistakes, and no caucus has let their leader make so many.

It must be tough, also, to sleep at night when thoughts of history and legacy inevitably start to swirl. The actions of Gillard and her supporters have destroyed the careers of two potentially-great Prime Ministers, Rudd and herself. This should be unforgivable. The arrogance and selfishness of her continuation is extreme, and the damage to the party is akin to criminal negligence. Even if Labor survives the nearing electoral and financial apocalypse, its appeal to this generation of incoming political talent is severely diminished. What enterprising young person would put their foot forward to join this horror show?

To be fair, we must acknowledge Rudd has always lacked a certain metal as well. He did not follow his convictions and squibbed the opportunity to call a double-dissolution election over the ETS. He did not have the ticker to fail another, albeit closer, leadership contest against Gillard, even if it would have set him up for a knockout blow in June. And so Rudd, too, fails the toughness test, but at least he is not campaigning on it.

Cowardice has been written all over this government. You can see it in the deference to focus groups and polls. You can see it in the sycophantic “that’s a very good question” responses on Q&A. You can see it in the narrow pursuit of Tony Abbott as a madman instead of doing battle on policy.

For someone who sympathises with progressive government and reckons Labor has introduced some good reforms which should stay, the result of last week’s calamity was a cause for white rage and, later that evening, a quiet tear or two. For a while I thought that maybe, despite its archaic union fiefdoms and dunderheaded factionalism, there were still enough smart people in the ALP who would see sense. In the moment when it mattered most, I was proved mistaken.

Michael Koziol is graduating from the University of Sydney this year.