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Labor in vain: will the Rudd party reforms work?

Kevin Rudd is back as prime minister. But can he change party rules to prevent leaders being ousted as he was in 2010? AAP/Dan Peled

Today, a specially convened meeting of the Labor caucus will decide on proposed changes to how the party selects its parliamentary leader.

The politics of leadership in Australia have been described as Darwinian, and recent events have been no exception. Just over three weeks ago, Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard as Labor Party leader and Prime Minister of Australia. Rudd was elected 57 votes to Gillard’s 45, three years after he originally resigned.

Irrespective of, and perhaps detracting from any policy successes she achieved, the duration of Gillard’s leadership of the party was marred by the ghost of Rudd. From the moment that she became prime minister, the legitimacy of Gillard’s leadership was brought into question by the manner in which she was installed.

The fluidity of the current leadership selection and removal rules in the party (requiring only a majority vote of the parliamentary party to remove and install a leader at any time) meant that Australians found they suddenly had a new prime minister, despite not having the opportunity to go to the polls.

Rudd’s election as leader this time around repeats the pattern of an Australian party leader and prime minister being appointed without any popular involvement (either from party members or members of the public) in the process. While Gillard went straight to the polls after her installation as leader to mitigate any perceived democratic deficit, Rudd’s immediate response to this scenario has been quite different: proposing a series of reforms to the leadership selection process itself.

In the plan he will put to a special meeting of the Labor parliamentary party, Rudd has proposed that Labor leadership selection rules be changed so that both parliamentarians and party members elect the party leader. The vote would be split equally between the two groups. A leader who takes the party to an election and wins would be guaranteed a full term in office – a provision that Rudd has argued is necessary because:

Today, more than ever, Australians demand to know that the prime minister they elect is the prime minister they get.

The timing of these proposals should not come as a great surprise. Although Kevin Rudd is correct to say that this is “the most significant reform to the Australian Labor Party in recent history”, it comes at a time when the party has been plagued by internal unrest and allegations of corruption at both state and federal levels.

In this sense it is easy to appreciate the rhetoric of reform and democratisation that is associated with the changes: “I believe it will encourage people to re-engage in the political process and bring back those supporters who have been disillusioned”. The reforms would also “ensure that power will never again rest in the hands of a factional few”.

Yet at the same time these changes also reflect where Kevin Rudd’s power base lies: with the party membership. While his leadership style was strongly criticised by his caucus colleagues, Rudd’s popularity amongst the party membership has remained strong. While not widely publicised, the election of the party leader by the membership was an idea that Rudd advocated at the party’s last National Conference in December 2011.

The Unity Hotel in Balmain, in inner Sydney, will host a special caucus meeting to discuss plans to change the way the Labor leadership is elected. AAP/Leichhardt Council

If these reforms are achieved, the Labor Party will be the first of any Australian party since the Australian Democrats to allow party members to elect the party leader. The Liberal Party, the National Party and the Greens all continue to elect their party leaders through the parliamentary party and this seems unlikely to change. In an international perspective, Australian parties have been rather unique in their unwillingness to move influence beyond the parliamentary party, when comparable parties in Canada and the United Kingdom incorporated a membership ballot into the process years ago.

Unlike the Australian Democrats, however, the Australian Labor Party vote will be shared between the national membership and the federal parliamentary party. What is still to be worked out is where the unions fit in this picture. In the UK Labour Party, for example, unions comprise one-third of the franchise for the leadership.

What will also set the ALP apart is the new provision that a successful leader (a prime minister) may not be removed between elections unless demanded by 75% of the party room. While this may address some of the problems of uncertainty and public legitimacy that have plagued Labor in recent years, it removes a great deal of party flexibility to remove electorally unpopular leaders, or at least threaten to do so.

It also enhances the power of the prime minister, as the manager of her or his government, by curtailing the ability of parliamentarians to replace their leader. Requiring the support of three quarters of the parliamentary party to remove the party leader is a high threshold: on no occasion since 1965 has the party leader received that level in support in a contested election. Julia Gillard came the closest (70%) when she defeated Rudd’s challenge in 2012, and this threshold is certainly a point upon which there is some uncertainty in the caucus.

Other points that will need to be considered is whether these protections should apply to leaders who have been unable to form government, who should have the right to de-select a leader (this appears to be held exclusively by the parliamentary caucus), and if there are any set criteria upon which a Prime Minister may be ousted, for example, if he or she brings the party into “disrepute”.

Changing the formal rules for selecting a party leader is one thing, but it will do little to stop resignations that occur under pressure from colleagues or the party. Supporters of alternate candidates could still run public, and potentially destabilising, campaigns calling for the resignation of the leader. Nor will these rules end constant media attention upon the (un)popularity of party leaders.

While it seems highly likely that Rudd reforms will be endorsed by the parliamentary party, that is only the first step in what may be a more difficult path to amending the party’s constitution. The reforms will require the support of delegates to the party conference, which will only be convened in 2014. It is in this forum that debates concerning the appropriate role of unions, as well as the accommodation of factions, will be fought out.

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