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Labor’s future contest: Bowen V Shorten?

Chris Bowen spoke about the economic challenge now the mining boom is slowing. AAP/Alan Porritt

Chris Bowen had originally booked into the National Press Club today to talk about his just published Hearts & Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor. But as he said, instead of having a backbencher spruiking a book, the audience got a treasurer talking about the post-mining boom economic transition.

Aside from Kevin himself, Bowen has been the biggest winner from the Rudd restoration - and this goes beyond the obvious big prize of the treasuryship.

Bowen has been given a leg up in the next generation’s battle over who will be the future Labor leader.

The conventional wisdom until recently has been that the ALP would lose the election and Bill Shorten would be the front runner for opposition leader. Greg Combet, the other union heavy who entered parliament in 2007, had fallen behind.

Now everything has changed. Rudd’s ascension has made the election contest more open. Combet is retiring (as is Stephen Smith, who used to be mentioned in leadership dispatches).

And Bowen, from the NSW right, has emerged as potentially a strong competitor to Shorten’s ambitions.

Of course Shorten, in charge of the Better Schools (Gonski) negotiations is getting his chance to show his mettle. But Bowen as Treasurer is front and centre all the time in the helter skelter Rudd administration.

If Rudd pulled off a victory, his proposed change to ALP rules would guarantee him security of tenure. But if he loses, and does not want or cannot get to be opposition leader, a battle between these two right wingers, Bowen and Shorten, could be fascinating, especially because it would involve a fight not just for caucus support but, under the proposed changes caucus will consider on Monday, for the votes of the rank and file as well.

In his book Bowen proposes the two big rules changes that Rudd is taking to Monday’s caucus: (1) caucus and the rank and file of the party have 50-50 say in choosing the leader, and (2) triggering a spill would need 75% of the caucus. (The Rudd plan adds that the grounds for a spill should be that the leader has brought the party “into disrepute”.)

Rudd at the moment is a political bulldozer; not surprisingly, colleagues are not coming out to oppose this huge change. Caucus is caught: it can’t rebuff the leader so any questioning has to be at the margin.

Nor are Labor people rushing to point out that there is more than a tad of hypocrisy in Rudd saying voters are entitled to greater leadership stability. This is the man who toppled a prime minister a few weeks ago and an opposition leader a few years ago.

When asked today about denying to a future caucus faced with the prospect of electoral disaster the right he and other Ruddites exercised, Bowen said the circumstances leading to Rudd’s return were “pretty unique”. These were the way Rudd’s left the prime ministership and the public’s strong view that he should return.

In general, “the circumstances in which a leader should be removed are pretty rare and unusual”, Bowen said.

But while there have been a number of leadership changes, mostly they have their own “unusual” aspects.

Beazley may well have won the 2007 election, but Rudd was a more certain bet. Under the Rudd-Bowen position caucus should have stuck with Beazley, instead of installing Rudd in late 2006.

And stuck with Bob Hawke in 1991 rather than replacing him with Paul Keating, who pulled off the “unwinnable” election.

Rudd’s 75% trigger point is too high, certainly for opposition (Rudd has hinted at some flexibility here) and probably for government. And the provision about “disrepute” is not the point. Leaders’ problems usually relate to their vote-drawing capacity, not to something disreputable.

It’s hard to argue against the 50-50 plan given that many overseas parties do have membership participation, and some in Labor see the proposed change as a way to energise the party (although do we think members would be flowing in to choose between, say Bowen and Shorten?).

In general, Labor branch membership is more left wing than the caucus, which could raise problems for getting the leader with most appeal to the political centre. On the other hand, one caucus source argues that the rank and file is less feral than the MPs, who have been so ready take up the sword.

Another Labor man makes the point that a leader has a different relationship with caucus compared with their relationship with the rank and file. Caucus members know the leadership aspirants, their strengths and weaknesses, much more intimately than do the ordinary party members.

Dealing the rank and file into the play might have favoured the people who didn’t win the caucus ballots. Hawke would probably have done better among them than Keating; Gillard could have been more popular than Rudd.

But it also should be remembered that the new system could still see the party power wielders having a significant influence. Indeed, it’s possible they’d have more sway over the rank and file than they recently have had over caucus members.

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