Kevin Rudd is nothing if not brazen. Less than a fortnight after rolling Julia Gillard he has proposed an historic change that would prevent such a putsch in the future.
His radical plan – one of the most fundamental reforms ever to Labor rules - would guarantee that the leader who won an election would remain as PM for the full term, except in extraordinary circumstances.
A key part of the blueprint, considered at a special caucus meeting on July 22, would give the Labor party rank and file a 50% say in the choice of the leader, equal to that of the parliamentary party.
Rudd is driven – at least in part - not by the coup he just executed but by the 2010 one which saw him tossed from the prime ministership.
As he colourfully put it, in an obvious reference to what happened then, his change would “prevent anyone just wandering in one day or one night and saying ‘OK, Sunshine, it’s over’”.
But his initiative does go to the substantive issue of how damaging leadership instability can be. Generated and fed by constant polls and the frenetic media cycle, it can have destructive consequences for good government.
The ALP leadership merry go round has also contributed to public disillusionment with politics.
The PM’s move neutralises the opposition’s line that if the voters re-elect Rudd there is no guarantee they would get him for a full term. On the other hand, given what’s just happened some voters will probably do a double take and react cynically.
Rudd told a news conference: “Today, more than ever, Australians demand to know that the prime minister they elect, is the prime minister they get. They demand that certainty.” He was flanked by his deputy Anthony Albanese and the Senate leader and deputy, Penny Wong and Jacinta Collins. These positions would continue to be elected by caucus.
Under the changes, a leadership ballot would be called if the leader resigned or asked for it, or where at least three quarters of caucus signed a petition requesting an election of a new leader “on the grounds the current leader has brought the party into disrepute”. At present only a third of caucus has to petition for a ballot.
A ballot would automatically follow an election loss.
While the caucus and the party membership would have equal say in the election of the leader, candidates would have to be nominated by 20% of caucus members. The rank and file ballot would take a month.
Since 2001 the ALP has had five federal leaders: Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd (twice) and Julia Gillard.
As part of the Rudd package, caucus gets back the right to elect the ministry. Rudd assumed the power to select the frontbench in opposition and this was later confirmed in government by caucus. Gillard as PM strongly supported the principle of the PM selecting the ministry.
But Rudd later admitted he made a mistake. Critics believe that having the leader choose the frontbench (as distinct from allocating portfolios) makes ministers more supine.
Rudd can be sure of getting his plan through the special caucus meeting. It will be seen as popular but also dissent would be damaging in the run up to the election.
Rudd’s reform push is part of his drive to show he is confronting ALP problems and intent on making the party more democratic. This aligns him with Gough Whitlam who used party reform as part of his appeal to the electorate.
Last week he announced federal intervention to clean up the NSW party in the wake of the corruption scandal when Labor was in government.
He is running against the “old” ALP as part of his promise of “new” politics.
But he is not taking on union power in the party.
Rudd told his news conference the ALP must “change to reflect our changing nation”. “I believe this change is essential to grow a vibrant and modern Australian party for a modern and diverse Australia.”
“I believe it will encourage people to re-engage in the political process and to bring back those supporters who have become disillusioned. Labor values do not belong to any one person or any select group and neither should the decision of who leads the Australian Labor party”.
He said parallel reforms had taken place in many other Western political parties in recent decades. (The membership has a say in electing the leader of British Labour; the Canadian New Democratic party chooses its leader at a convention.) “We’re not Robinson Crusoe on this. In fact we’re a bit late”.
Among those who have advocated giving the rank and file a say in the choice of leader have been NSW secretary Sam Dastyari, Rudd’s political adviser Bruce Hawker and Treasurer Chris Bowen. “A number of us have been talking about this for a very long time”, Albanese told the ABC tonight.
Party elder John Faulkner, who with Steve Bracks and Bob Carr called for a big party shake up in their report on the 2010 election, declined to comment on today’s Rudd plan.
Former caucus chairman Daryl Melham, who opposed the removal of caucus’s right to choose the ministry, welcomes its return. Melham tonight also said the leadership rules changes will increase stability.
On the other hand, it is not a completely one way argument. While the 2010 coup against Rudd was in retrospect clearly a mistake, early polling suggests Labor will do better than it would have, as a result of the change from Gillard to Rudd. This switch would not have been possible under the Rudd rules.
The change could undesirably tie the party’s hands when an opposition leader was doing badly.
And while empowering the membership in the choice of leader should give some fresh lifeblood to the party, it could become a downside if the membership was significantly unrepresentative of Labor voters. The ALP rank and file is usually more left leaning than the parliamentary party.