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The Rudd reforms: are they democratic?

On Monday, prime minister Kevin Rudd announced a series of proposals to change the way the Australian Labor Party selects its parliamentary leader. Under his proposal, incumbents can only be challenged…

The new and improved Kevin Rudd wants to change the way Labor elects its leaders. But is his proposed method democratic? AAP/Image News Corp Australia Pool/Gary Ramage

On Monday, prime minister Kevin Rudd announced a series of proposals to change the way the Australian Labor Party selects its parliamentary leader.

Under his proposal, incumbents can only be challenged by MPs if three-quarters of the party caucus agree (leaders are expected to resign following an electoral loss). In ballots for the leadership, he proposes that ALP members will be able to vote for the leadership with equal weight to that of MPs.

The interpretation of this proposal has largely been reported in two ways.

The majority of coverage has been through the lens of the Rudd-Julia Gillard leadership contest. This is unsurprising, as this personalised power struggle has dominated political reportage for over three years. Certainly this proposal – if adopted, as appears likely – would close off the type of situation that occurred in 2010, where Rudd was removed by a simple majority of MPs (led by the ever-present “faceless men” of the ALP’s factions) irrespective of the weight he retained in the popular imagination.

Had Labor had this system in 2010 Rudd would have retained the leadership, or the conspirators would have had to be more public recruiting for the spill and selling their cause to rank-and-file party members.

Another focus of discussion is on the practicalities of this change. Leadership challenges in the past tend to be comparatively quick affairs, brewing up over a week or so, and leading to a vote at the first available window of opportunity when MPs are gathered together. Leadership contests also tend to create uncertainty in the community and skittishness in the economy.

With this new system, considerable planning and campaigning will need to occur in the event of a spill vote if the rank-and-file members are to be included. In these situations, there will be longer periods of uncertainty where the National Executive or opposition leadership team is in disarray.

While these possible problems are real, it is important to see this as more than the fallout of the ALP’s leadership squabbles. The decision to explicitly recognise an expanded role for party members clearly acknowledges a widening gap between Australia’s professional parties and the wider public.

Over a number of decades, the shift of parties as “mass” (up to 10% of the electorate) institutions to professional parties that focus on the use of centralised campaign techniques and marketing has distanced parties from the electorate. As parties move away from ideological positions and focus on servicing particular market needs, they’ve redefined their relationships with citizens.

The tipping point of this change is often associated with the advertising-focused and leader-oriented “It’s Time” campaign of Gough Whitlam. While it was an effective campaign in terms of its reach and longevity, it cemented the tendency towards centralised campaigns focused on mass media targeting swinging voters.

With the increase in marketing-oriented political campaigns, parties have tended to become more volatile in their ideological positioning and tended not to think about voters as people with whom they have a relationship, as much as economic actors with which they engage in periodic transactions.

To this end, in recent years the ALP and the National Party have been experimenting with US style open “primary” contests: electorate-level contests to select candidates which include both party members and general members of the public. A good example of this is the Nationals primary in the electorate of New England, won by current senator Barnaby Joyce.

To date, the democratic character of these primaries varies in terms of the percentage weighting given to party members and citizens over party functionaries. Their use in marginal and opposition-held electorates has also undermined the claim of a pure democratic motive over more pragmatic attempts to grab seats through more intensive campaigning in important electorates.

Democratic structures and procedures within organisations may be easy to change for a leader like Rudd, who has managed to hold his party hostage to his own personal position. But at a basic democratic level, the proposal presents some problems.

Rudd suggests it will end the type of leadership dysfunction we’ve seen for several years, but this is a questionable claim. This system could result in the retention of extremely unpopular leader who has a core group of committed supporters, and the very undemocratic possibility of being the leader with only 25.1% support in caucus.

It could result in a leader being subject to rolling spills where they face the overwhelming disapproval of MPs and member support.

Finally, because there is no “recall” option of rank-and-file members, member participation is highly contingent on the politics of the “faceless men” of the parliamentary wing. Like with the limited experiments with open primaries, access to the ballot remains controlled by the inner circle.

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Rogers

    Retired

    What is a 'prime minister'? The Australian constitution is silent on this position. Mentioned are 'ministers' but nothing defines the office of 'prime minister'. By convention the 'prime minister' and 'cabinet' make up with the monarch or their representative the executive government of the country.

    As 'infosheet 20 - The Australia System of Government' from the Parliament of Australia, website states, " a realistic understanding of Australia’s Executive Government cannot be obtained from the…

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    1. Garry Baker

      researcher

      In reply to Michael Rogers

      " Is what we have in fact a classic British ruling-class fudge to keep the masses at ample distance from executive government? ""

      Too true Michael, however voters have never seen it that way. They think they were the ones who made their mark, and no one should interfere with it. Ala, their dissatisfaction with Rudd being tossed out.

      However there is a public tolerance for a strong arm - Indeed, a hope that stability might come from a benign dictator - Ala, Gillard, who failed to make…

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    2. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Michael Rogers

      Okay, what would you suggest? One party rule, anarchist collectives . . . and the gulags that go with it of course.

      Give us a break . . .

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    3. Michael Rogers

      Retired

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      How about a constitutional republic where the people are sovereign and the powers of any executive government are defined in the Constitution? Your extrapolation that I was somehow suggesting "one party rule" or "anarchist collectives" is indicative of the feeble thinking around these matters.
      (You are excused if your post was just a piece of trolling or an attempt at satirising witless trolling.)

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    4. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Michael Rogers

      Constitutional republic -- like the US? Ooh, aah, not the US, eh?

      Sure, I'll be in that! Or did you have another republic in mind? Call me an old-fashioned troll, but you will have to elaborate more on your system of government.

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    5. Neil James

      Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

      In reply to Michael Rogers

      Michael's view on the relationship between citizens and their government appears to reflect a cart before the horse approach.

      If Michael is a republican he appears to join the bulk of the republican movement who are somewhat hamstrung by not really understanding the constitutional principles of the Westminster system when trying to argue for its replacement. Indeed this is a major reason why the push for a republic continually fails, especially when it concentrates on peripheral issues, ignores…

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    6. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Neil James

      the republic referendum failed because howard removed the direct election option from the ballot and ruled out any discussion of it at the convention. the people rightly voted to stay with the status quo rather than change to another system where again they would cede to some combine of politicians the choice of their country's head of state. -a.v.

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    7. Neil James

      Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

      In reply to alfred venison

      Dear Alfred,

      The ADA does not get involved in party-political controversies except where factual errors hamper informed public debate.

      Neither of your assumptions is factually correct.

      The option for direct election was not on the ballot because the Constitutional Convention voted for an indirect election model.

      John Howard did not alter the referendum proposal decided by the Convention (as he had promised he would not do). Furthermore, the Convention was not controlled by the then PM (or Government) in any way.

      Moreover, any referendum question must spell out all the detail of the constitutional change being proposed for both legal reasons and to maximise an informed vote.

      This is why plebiscites (asking broader questions) would not work even if they were constitutionally valid in Australia (which they are not).

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    8. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Neil James

      howard knew where public opinion was trending, everyone did, and before it even started, he declared there would be only two options put to the people: the status quo and one republican model and stacked the convention with monarchists and minimalists. had howard been genuinely testing the people on the question he would not have so artificially restricted the options and would have allowed more than one republican option to be put to them. that the people stayed with the monarchy, when presented the option of a republican model with an appointed head of state, cannot seriously be read an endorsement of the monarchy in preference to a republic with an elected president. that is untested. -a.v.

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    9. Neil James

      Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

      In reply to alfred venison

      Dear Alfred,

      You appear to have again missed the point that the constitution prescribes that an amendment to it must detail exactly what the wording of the proposed change would be if it is approved by a majority of electors and a majority of the six states. Therefore only one option for change can be presented for approval and it must be presented in detail. Therefore there can only ever be two options in any constitutional referendum: no change or the change described in detail. As well as a…

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    10. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Neil James

      dear Neil
      you're right about clear choice referendums. thanks for sticking with me on this, i'm recollecting this piecemeal, i was between jobs and listened to it day and night but that was then. i recollect my feeling at the time was that a true sounding of opinion would have needed a two phased approach with an indicative referendum or plebiscite first to ascertain if there was sufficient support to become a republic. if no, that would be it, if yes, then both the options for change should…

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    11. Neil James

      Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

      In reply to alfred venison

      Dear Alfred,

      But any plebiscite posing the question "do you want Australia to be a republic" would produce a meaningless result. Chiefly because no informed person could answer yes or no unless they knew exactly what type of republic was envisaged (so they could adequately compare it to the current system and adequately assess the risks of any change) and, even more importantly, that the type they were considering saying yes to would be exactly the type instituted as a result.

      This is the perpetual…

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    12. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Neil James

      an indicative plebiscite with 25% affirmation for change away from monarchy would carry very different weight than one with 66% or 75% affirmation for change.

      howard did not appoint anyone who favored an elected president. his choices were applauded by republicans who opposed an elected president.

      it was a referendum designed to affirm the monarchy by denying people the republican option polls at the time indicated they wanted. -a.v.

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    13. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Neil James

      simply and in the interest of putting this to bed and maybe agreeing to disagree i think you read that referendum as an affirmation of monarchy and i read it as a rejection of the appointed president republican model. in my opinion the issue remains unsettled & will arise again with the passing of the monarch. -a.v.

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  2. David Howard

    Home Duties

    In most other nations a leader must “get out the vote” ie mobilise their side of politics. In Australia, with compulsory voting, the leader must be appealing to 51% of those who are going to vote ie grab the centre.

    At present, the Labor leader is selected by the Caucus based on who they believe has the capacity to lead and potential to will win. A primaries type system works differently, it selects the candidate that is most appealing to those voting in the primaries. It seems reasonable to…

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    1. Michael Rogers

      Retired

      In reply to David Howard

      I think you'll find that what is left of the "left", these days votes Green or if further "left", for one of the socialist or Trotskyite mini and splinter parties parties that still adhere to traditional "left" policies and beliefs.

      Nobody with progressive political views and a desire for social justice, fairness and protection of basic rights or with ideas like mining profits going not to foreign shareholders but into a sovereign wealth fund (as in Norway) votes for the Australian Labor Party anymore.

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    2. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Michael Rogers

      Then again, some of them actually grew up and still support the Labor Party and are trying to reform it.

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    3. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to David Howard

      i dispute that labor party members are to the left of labor party voters. after all, aren't there right wing unions and a right faction in caucus? and social conservatives on the left faction? -a.v.

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  3. John Craig

    Retired

    There is no doubt that the Rudd proposal would further distort the democratic ideals of Australia's system of government (by giving increased influence to Party insiders). However there are broader issues in relation to genuinely making Australia's political and governance systems more effective. Suggestions about this are in "Will More Factionalised Faceless Men Improve Australia's System of Government? "
    - http://cpds.apana.org.au/Teams/Articles/gov_Populism.htm#9_7_13

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    1. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to John Craig

      No, the Rudd proposal will not "further distort the democratic ideals of Australia's system of government."

      It will inhibit (rather than destroy) the power of factional leaders and their supporters outside the parliament, which is what it is meant to do.

      Your piece is a grand non-sequitur.

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  4. Yuri Pannikin

    Director

    No putative democratic system is perfect, nor will it ever be, and nor should it be. We aim for the fuzzy centre of democracy where things can go wrong, often do; but ultimately the system is proven to be superior to any other system in the history of politics.

    Rudd has embraced this idea in the Labor Party, and reasonably will ensure (with adoption of this system), that an elected leader cannot be 'usurped' by a bunch of power-hungry fools and charlatans in his or her first term as elected leader.

    Should the leader attempt to 'do a Morsi' and flagrantly disregard the wishes of the people, I'm sure a solution could be found in the deep trenches of the Labor caucus.

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    1. Paul Rogers

      Manager

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      Correction, as Prime Minister. I note that today he suggested this may not apply to leaders in opposition.

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