Rudd reforms and preselection battles: the more things change…

Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s attempts to reconstruct the ALP may fall flat if Victorian preselection battles in Hotham and Lalor are any guide. AAP/Tara Ravens

The old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is particularly appropriate when describing the Australian Labor Party at the moment. Upon being returned to the federal parliamentary leadership, Kevin Rudd declared that a new era of internal Labor politics was about to dawn, characterised by the empowerment of the ordinary branch member and the end of the dominance of the “faceless men” of the party’s factions.

Meanwhile, the same old internal factional politics - upset somewhat by the consequences of the transition of the Labor leadership from Julia Gillard to Rudd - have been critical to the spate of preselections occurring in the scramble to get Labor candidates in place in time for a federal election that could be called at any moment. Here again arises the strong sense of disconnect between Rudd’s view of his party and what the Labor party is in reality.

In his comments to the press following the meeting of the Labor caucus that endorsed his proposals to alter the way the party selects its parliamentary leader, Rudd declared that the party’s National Conference would fall into line on these changes because of its subordination to caucus.

In actual fact, under party rules it is the caucus that is subservient to the conference – and, for that matter, the parliamentary leadership is supposed to be subordinate to both the caucus and the conference. If Rudd is to get his way on his reforms, he will have to do so with the agreement of the conference. For this task, he may need the very factional convenors he likes to pillory as “faceless men” to ensure a disciplined bloc vote on this matter amongst the 400 delegates who attend, otherwise his reforms will go nowhere.

The early signs are not good for Rudd. Recent preselections in Victoria, NSW and Queensland confirm that the essential prerequisites for being a Labor-endorsed candidate for a safe seat are that you once worked for a politician and/or that you are the beneficiary of localised factional arrangements. The key players continue to be the Right factional convenors and their agreements with sub-factional players associated with the affiliated right-aligned unions.

In Victoria, for instance, the attitude of senator Stephen Conroy to his previous alignment with the Australian Workers Union (and its leading player, Bill Shorten) was critical to the choices made in the safe electorates of Lalor and Hotham. In Hotham, Labor has endorsed Geoff Lake, whose roll-up of branch members known to be supporters of state MP Hong Lim to vote for him at the local branch ballot caused allegations and counter-allegations of racism to be bandied around in the Melbourne press. Supporters of Lake’s opponent Rosemary Barker tried to question the bona fides of some of these members.

Presumably, this is the sort of thing Kevin Rudd wishes to bring to the parliamentary leadership selection process if and when his proposal to gives half of the voting power to the branches becomes part of the party’s rules.

Lake’s campaign could have ended at the party’s Public Office Selection Committee (POSC). But as a result of the argument between Shorten and Conroy over the dumping of Julia Gillard, the so-called “Short-Con” subsection of the Labor Unity faction failed to exercise their veto power. Lake, with the blessing of retiring incumbent Simon Crean and his rump of National Union of Worker-aligned supporters within the fragmented right, will be the next member for Hotham.

Two groups within the party have been completely sidelined in all of this. The Socialist Left dealt with the Lalor and Hotham pre-selections by abstaining at the POSC. Things have been going badly for the Left faction in Victoria, having lost one of its seats, Batman, to the Right with the preselection of David Feeney. This was compounded when they were unable to make up the difference in Gillard’s soon to be former electorate of Lalor: apparently newly endorsed candidate Joanne Ryan intends to join Labor Unity.

Factional figure David Feeney has been preselected for the safe seat of Batman, raising concerns over the power of male-dominated right-wing factions within the ALP. AAP/Alan Porritt

The other irrelevant body has been EMILY’s List, an intra-party networking group seeking to encourage female candidates, which spends a lot of its time advocating positive discrimination in Labor preselections but lacks any real internal influence to do anything about it. This appears to be due to two reasons in particular. EMILY’s List tends to be dominated by numbers drawn from the party’s left and, as the right factions and sub-factions have slowly enhanced their influence, so too has EMILY’s List been less able to pursue its agenda.

The male dominance of factional politics is another reason for EMILY’s List’s limited influence. In turn, this is a reflection of the male predominance in union politics. Factional influence is a reflection of the power of the affiliated unions within the Labor party’s organisation. The key players in factional politics are men - for some reason, the feminisation of Labor has not yet broken into the world of factional convenorship.

The Labor party is in a very precarious state. It has failed in state elections in NSW, Queensland, WA and Victoria, and the polls indicate that Labor governments are facing defeat in Tasmania and South Australia. Its performance in national politics has been nothing short of shambolic and defeat at the federal election is a real prospect.

Have the unions been responsible for this shambles? Are the branches, devoid as they are of members with the exception of the “branch stacks” brought in to the party to assist an aspiring political career, to blame for the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership fiasco? Did the National Conference sanction the carbon tax or doing deals with Tony Windsor and the Greens in a bid to secure minority government? The answer to these questions is no.

Would enhancing the power of these organs have led to a qualitatively different Labor government under Rudd or Gillard? Would it have altered the influence of the faction convenors and have led to different preselection outcomes? The answer to all of these questions is probably not.

In the end, those responsible for the state of the Labor party are the parliamentary wing and its two leaders, Gillard and Rudd. This means Rudd’s reform proposals represent blame shifting away from the leadership and back towards the party organisation.

In a final irony, if they were to become party rules, Rudd’s reforms would actually ending up reinforcing the influence of the factional convenors who would be pivotal to trying to co-ordinate both the caucus and the branches. Factionalism is inevitable in party politics. Good leadership occurs when leaders work with, rather than against, the organisation they are a part of.