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Is this Kevin Rudd’s ‘New Labor’ party?

Prime minister Kevin Rudd has announced reform to the workings of the ALP, including that the parliamentary leader will be jointly elected by rank-and-file and caucus members. AAP/Lukas Coch

Public servants often complain that when their ministers go on holiday, they usually return with a rag bag of new policy ideas. Since regaining the ALP leadership, Kevin Rudd has a three year backlog of holiday ideas for both country and party.

Rudd’s latest proposal is to change how the Australian Labor Party elects its parliamentary leader. In an act of political retribution, Rudd is moving swiftly to consolidate his place as leader and take full advantage of the rapid upswing in the ALP’s fortunes. To the victor go the spoils.

Instead of the party caucus solely electing the leader, Rudd’s proposal is a 50:50 split between MPs and the rank-and-file ALP members. Rudd proposes three “triggers” for a leadership spill: the leader’s resignation, a federal election loss, and a 75% no confidence vote by party caucus.

Given that Rudd won the most recent ballot 57 votes to 45 (56% of the caucus vote), cynics will see this as a brazen act of defiance to any likely challengers – most likely Bill Shorten. However, Rudd claims this is a long overdue measure to reinvigorate party democracy and – less vocally – garner some protection from the powerful factional leaders.

Despite the recent trauma of Gillard’s removal, it is likely that many ALP members will welcome Rudd’s proposal. The 2010 ALP National Review offers a desperate picture of the ailing party. Echoing these deep sentiments, one member argues:

At the moment, the party branches are dying, because the rank and file are given no voice in the party.

It is striking, however, that 2010 review fell short of recommending changes to how the party leader was chosen. Like the 2002 Hawke/Wran Review, most of the recommendations in the 2010 review have been sidelined.

Commentator and former Rudd adviser Troy Bramston laments Labor’s “lost decade” during the Howard era to reinvigorate the party’s structures. Bramston despairs that, unlike “New Labour” in the UK, the ALP has not had its “Clause IV” moment. Following the death of John Smith in 1994, then-UK opposition leader Tony Blair set about completing what Hugh Gaitskell failed to do after Labour’s 1959 election defeat. Blair amended the party’s mission to abandon the cause of nationalisation, and went on to “fix” its internal structures.

Despite being “sister” parties, there are differences between British Labour and the ALP. British Labour has a long tradition of not replacing the party leader until after an election defeat. Neil Kinnock was allowed to lead the party to two election defeats in 1987 and 1992. The ALP would never have let Gordon Brown lead the party so ineptly at the 2010 election. The ALP has a much stronger appetite for deposing a leader before an election: Julia Gillard, Bill Hayden and Rudd himself are all victims of this “tradition”.

A further, crucial distinction between the two parties is how they elect the leader. British Labour has long held a form of an “electoral college”, with a weighting between affiliated trade unions, the parliamentary party and local branches. Following the 2010 election defeat, British Labour amended the leadership rules to have an equal weighting between the members of each of these groups, with the rank-and-file given a direct say.

Strikingly, Rudd’s proposal singularly fails to include a direct trade union vote as part of an electoral college. While Gillard couched her agenda in “labor values” and had a much closer relationship with the unions, Rudd casts himself – more like Blair – as social democrat.

Rudd is well aware of the incongruence of declining union density in Australia – fewer than 20% of the workforce are union members – and yet unions hold a 50:50 bloc vote at party conferences. Again, like Blair, Rudd favours forms of plebiscitary forms of democracy for party members, allowing them votes on predetermined options. This can open up greater party democracy. UK research shows that British Labour members were in favour of the reforms. Yet, at the same time, the changes had the net effect of increasing the power of the party leadership.

The irony for Kevin Rudd is that under Gillard’s leadership, there was a fresh recruitment wave, with a target of 9,000 new members. While membership has apparently increased, Rudd is proposing giving new voice to those members – many of whom are likely to be Gillard devotees. If accepted, his reforms might increase the gap between himself and the party base, even if he were to deliver them an unlikely election win.

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