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All that glitters was not necessarily gold in Labor’s leadership poll

New Labor leader Bill Shorten has vowed to continue on the path of party reform, but the latest ALP leadership battle failed to expose all the dangers of the new system. Not only is there the possibility…

Amidst the celebrations of ‘democracy’, the ALP leadership election - which gave rise to Bill Shorten as Labor leader - exposed a number of flaws in the new process. AAP/Lukas Coch

New Labor leader Bill Shorten has vowed to continue on the path of party reform, but the latest ALP leadership battle failed to expose all the dangers of the new system.

Not only is there the possibility of a paradoxical outcome (where the party membership and the caucus are split on who should be leader), but the process is slow, and there is a clear malapportionment between caucus and branch voting power. This has the potential to cause friction in to the future.

Plus there’s the fact the affiliated unions were not part of the process.

The change in the parliamentary leadership election process, brought in by former leader Kevin Rudd, required a “democratic” selection process in which the parliamentary and branch wings of the party participated.

Shorten emerged victorious from this process over Anthony Albanese on the back of majority support for him in caucus, and a 40% vote amongst the members. According to those in the know, some 345 branch member votes had the same voting power as one caucus vote. Shorten won 55 votes in caucus and the party reported he obtained 12,196 (or 40%) of the 30,426 votes cast by members.

We have been told this total represents about three-quarters of the party membership, so we can now say with some authority that Labor’s national branch membership numbers are somewhere around 40,000.

We have also been told that some 4,000 new members joined the party in the immediate aftermath of the federal election defeat, so this means that Labor membership during the years of government was at about 36,000.

Given that he was the preferred choice of his parliamentary colleagues, it is perhaps fortuitous for the Labor Party that Shorten prevailed. However, his reputation as leader of the party in its totality must be qualified to some extent by the fact that 60% of the broader party preferred Mr Albanese. It is also perhaps fortuitous that the whole leadership process was conducted in such a gentlemanly manner, and that Albanese has been so magnanimous in defeat.

This has allowed the party to celebrate the process as a triumph for internal party reform and democracy. However, rather like the way the axiomatic Labor view of the 2013 election result that precipitated the need for a new leader (that is, the election result wasn’t that bad and leadership instability was to blame) has emerged, the party’s trumpeting of its leader election process might just be wishful thinking.

At least the drawn-out process allowed the Labor caucus and the two men who were so central to Labor’s failure at the federal election to find a distraction in the aftermath of the party’s hiding in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. One wonders if this exercise now replaces the otherwise almost obligatory review of the party by an elder party statesman that usually follows ignominious electoral defeat.

It was all smiles in the month-long contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese for the Labor leadership. AAP/Lukas Coch

The Shorten-Albanese contest was for the spoils of defeat, and this explains why the loser would be so sanguine. Albanese may well live to fight another day, but the real test for the new process will be when the leadership battle is on in earnest and the question of who might be the prime minister might arise. It would be interesting to see how the branch membership of the party fares in such a contest.

If preselection battles in the past are anything to go by, a branch-stack of staggering proportions would probably ensue. If the caucus were to be enlarged ahead of such an event, the numbers of branch members needed would be vast. Alternatively, a grassroots campaign about addressing the malapportionment between caucus and branch voting power could ensue.

This round of the leadership selection process has thrown up a contradictory outcome, but it is one that can be endured by the parliamentary wing. Shorten wasn’t the most popular candidate in the branch, but at least he has majority support amongst his parliamentary colleagues. Labor should reflect on what happened to the Australian Democrats who had a similar ethos when it came to the parliamentary leadership.

In the case of the Democrats, the process returned Natasha Stott Despoja, who was very popular among the members but was in the minority faction in the parliamentary Democrats as the party divided over its policy on the GST. Not having the support of your parliamentary colleagues makes parliamentary leadership really difficult, and not even Stott Despoja could survive in that political environment. Her party soon followed her into oblivion.

Labor is a much bigger party than the Democrats. It has shown a capacity to be durable in the face of all sorts of disasters, and has survived bigger calamities than the Rudd party reforms. Still, a clear assessment of the process needs to go beyond celebration of party democracy for its own sake.

Reviving the branch membership of a party is a laudable objective and both the Labor and Liberal parties clearly see the promise of being able to participate in crucial preselection decisions as something that can entice people back to the branches. There are limits to how successful this can be, however, and there are great dangers in a system that takes too long to expedite and might give a result that key players can’t or won’t accept.

Besides, if it wants to regain its support among swinging voters, Labor needs to think less about how to enfranchise its partisans in internal affairs, and more on where it stands on policy.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. David Stein


    Thank you Nick for your analysis.
    Interestingly, the chamber of horrors you identify above looks remarkably similar to the sorts of things we heard from Richo and the Murdoch press prior to the result on Sunday - too slow, disaster in the event of a divided result, the membership mob will demand an ever increasing vote, naval gazing and on and on...
    And yet, the vote has concluded and all seems well among both membership and caucus. Indeed, the criticism today is there hasn't been enough change…

    Read more
    1. Edward Sainsbery

      Private Citizen

      In reply to David Stein


      But of course there'd be no story if the media admitted that overall the process worked quite well. I think Labor have handled this post-election phase remarkably well. Go so far to say as with maturity and some respect for the party and country (if you discount Ms Burke's spat).



      In reply to David Stein

      How many of those from the Left who voted for Mr Shorten are MPs who would have been ex-MPs had he not switched his support from Ms Gillard to Kevin Rudd and who, unlike his armchair critics, were able to see close-up how stressful it was for him to put loyalty to the Party ahead of personal loyalty to Ms Gillard. Significantly, Ms Gillard's warm congratulations to him on his election as leader give the lie to those who like to smear him as a back-stabber.

      As for the supposed 'malapportionment…

      Read more
    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to ERIC KELLY

      Oh well time will tell Mr K.

      This time whoever won would have been greeted with approbation anyway.

      Perhaps next time not so much niceness - but that's mere speculation.

  2. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Not enough room in the article to consider how The Greens elect their "leader".
    Apparently some people think that grass-roots participatory democracy ,and remember The Australian Democrats had this principle, means that you do not have "leaders", and you don't need "leaders".
    So ,when was the last time the Grass-roots Greens elected any sort of leader?
    Never, ever?
    But, do ask how the membership of The Greens determines Greens Policies.
    And the elected representatives do, as the principle demands, just what The Greens membership tells them.
    All irrelevant in the dominant "Fuhrerprincip" paradigm?
    Or in the "received wisdom" of the "Fuhreprincip".
    Is that why The Greens are ignored in the above article on leadership?
    Can you see where the argument is heading?

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to James Hill

      Greens are good for the body James and the more greenery we have, the healthier the planet could be too but just how the Greens might decide on leadership has to how Labor will go about it is as relevant as the price of fish in China to your local fish and chip shop.

  3. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    The whole theatre of electing the Labor leader was a great exercise in rejuvenation, as well as giving Labor some excellent media time.

    But now the dust is settled it is looking like it perhaps should have been Albo who got the job. In one sense it probably doesn't matter - but the is the real possibility of friction if this type of process is used a second time.

    My sense is the rank & file membership feel dudded by the party elite, and that no matter what was decided by the members, it will always be up to the caucus to make the REAL decision.

    There is the problem of being too democratic. But for me the only way to go about the process without future squabbles is to go back to election by caucus, leaving the other safeguards possibly in place to negate the possibility of deposing a sitting PM.

  4. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Really looking forward to N Economou's examination of the Coalition , relations between the nats and the Libs, and internal workings of the Liberal parliamentary party.

    That would be a novelty from this writer.

  5. Michael Field

    logged in via email

    Thank you for the article - we haven't seen enough criticism of this process. You hit the nail on the head with your warning about branch stacking and the dangers of electing a leader who doesn't have caucus support.

    A lunatic fringe has got hold of the GOP in the US because fanatics have more motivation than moderates. I may be alarmist but I see this as a dreadful development and very dangerous for the ALP. There is no structural or procedural discipline that can make a party membership accountable to anyone and party memberships on both sides often care less about winning government than they do about their 'ideologies' dominating the party. At least caucus, for all its considerable faults, worries about being re-elected.

  6. Dianna Arthur


    "...Labor needs to think less about how to enfranchise its partisans in internal affairs, and more on where it stands on policy..."

    I'm looking forward to having at least one of our two major parties just having some policies. As for where they stand with regard to said policies... that would be a bonus. I have finally learned to scale down my expectations, thanks Labor, well done LNP.

    1. Ella Miller


      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna, I have just listened to N. Roxon's Button lecture.
      It is worth listening to ... it has done me more good that 2 glasses of red wine.

    2. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Ella Miller

      Well Ella, one person's meat is another person's poison. Roxon's "bastard" speech reassured me why I voted for the LNP. Labor still is "eating its own". Rudd, as PM, had his strengths and weaknesses; he was human. To continue to decry him only reveals how crass and vulgar Roxon is. Rudd was elected (MP) by his electorate; the likes of Gillard and Roxon must learn to stop the public screeching. Grow up!!

  7. David Briggs

    logged in via Facebook

    Call me old fashioned "All that GLISTERS is not gold.." is the original form. From Merchant of Venice Shakespeare