Labor’s new democracy faces its first tests


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Labor’s new democracy faces its first tests

Posted Fri Jul 12, 2013 6:52am AEST

The big unresolved issue with Labor’s leadership ballot reform is the unions. Kevin Rudd may have neatly cut them out of his plans, but this isn’t the end of the matter, writes Barrie Cassidy.

Kevin Rudd’s proposal to give rank-and-file ALP members a say in leadership ballots partly reflects his loathing of factional heavies and his ambivalence towards trade unions.

In that sense, it represents a fair degree of self-interest.

The changes, if adopted, will give leaders a sense of security that none in the past have enjoyed. As Rudd said, no longer can people “just wander in one day, and say, ‘OK sunshine, it’s over.'”

What he didn’t say is that neither will it any longer be worth the while of any leadership aspirant to run the sort of destabilisation campaign that Julia Gillard had to endure for the best part of three years.

But having said all that, it’s a good idea whose time has come. The move should energise the Labor Party at branch level, grow the membership, strengthen the hand of the leader, and remove much of the intrigue and instability that has been a constant for years.

Australia has had four prime ministers since 2007, the biggest turnover since Bob Menzies quit in 1966 and Harold Holt drowned two years later, triggering a run of five prime ministers in six years.

The proposal on the face of it seems radical. However, Australia’s major parties are in fact the last across comparable countries to give the rank-and-file a say in the leadership.

In the United States, Republican and Democrat candidates for the presidency face off across the country in primary and caucus ballots, all determined by registered party members.

The primary system is enthusiastically embraced by political tragics and the media who in equal measure love the intense politicking and the changing fortunes.

The system is flawed to this extent. The ballots are staggered between January and June. Small states like Iowa and New Hampshire go early, giving them more clout than California and Florida.

Often candidates drop out before the big states get involved. It may be that the United States will eventually move to a national primary day, especially given the ability now for online voting.

In Britain, the Labor Party gives equal weighting in leadership ballots to the politicians, the rank-and-file, and the unions.

The most recent ballot did underline one of the problems with Rudd’s reform: will the leader lack authenticity and authority if the MPs vote one way and the rank-and-file another?

The current leader, Ed Miliband, went up against his brother, David. Ed lost in the party room 122 votes to 140, and lost in the popular members vote, 56,000 to 67,000, and yet secured the top job courtesy of the unions voting 119,000 to 80,000 in his favour.

Once all three constituents were given equal weight, Ed beat David by 50.65 per cent to 49.35 per cent, and ever since questions have been raised as to whether the party chose the right brother.

On the Conservatives side, the party room reduces the field to two candidates and then the 300,000 party members determine the winner.

The system works well and it gave David Cameron a decisive victory over his opponent, David Davis. The one criticism of the formula is that it can potentially reflect a narrow ideological view rather than broader community sentiment, but that is probably true anyway of any ballot, no matter what the rules.

In Canada, the New Democratic Party, the official opposition in the current parliament, chooses its leader at party conventions. Delegates drawn from the various branches and associations have one vote, the same as members of parliament and the various executives at national and provincial level.

The Liberal Party, the most successful in Canada’s history, does much the same thing, forcing MPs to look inward and pay attention to the concerns of the party membership.

The Conservative Party, an amalgamation of two-right wing parties, won majority government under Stephen Harper’s leadership in 2011. It too involves members by giving every branch 100 points in a leadership ballot, no matter their size.

So the Labor Party in Australia is going down a familiar international path. However, the big unresolved issue is union involvement.

Rudd neatly cut them out altogether, and caucus could well endorse that approach on July 22. But that won’t be the end of the matter. Eventually a national conference will decide the balance, free of pre-election restrictions. The last time they looked at it – in 2010 – it went nowhere.

In any case, unions retain much of the control over pre-selections and through that process, they have considerable clout in the caucus. By extension, then, they will have influence over the leadership.

As it turned out, Rudd faced the risk of losing the benefits of party reform because of the bewildering development in the pre-selection battle for Julia Gillard’s seat of Lalor in Victoria.

The factional bosses, or some of them, persuaded a junior diplomat, Lisa Clutterham, to nominate, even though she has only ever visited Victoria on holidays and has been a member of the party for three weeks. Most recently, she has lived and worked in Papua New Guinea.

Locals in Lalor immediately asked, how could it be that not a single Victorian is capable of representing their electorate in the federal Parliament?

The move was backed by Rudd supporters and yet it was the antithesis of what he is trying to do at the leadership level. It would have gone against the wishes of the branch and given a victory to factional bosses; and in this case, given it to somebody who knows next to nothing about the electorate.

Locals want some control over pre-selections precisely for that reason. They want representatives who know something about their specific and unique needs and concerns.

Rudd appears to have killed off the idea at the National Press Club, describing Clutterham’s interview with Jon Faine as curious and surprising. Just as well, because the introduction of Clutterham’s name into the mix was more than a distraction. It was a major miscalculation that threatened to offend the rank-and-file, place messy pre-selections at the top of the agenda, and potentially reopen the wounds that have been plastered over since Julia Gillard’s sacking.

As it is, the rank-and-file have been cut out of key pre-selection contests in safe seats, with the executive handing responsibility to party officials.

The outcomes still have the potential to dampen Rudd’s notion of a new democracy at work within the Labor Party.


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