Gordon Brown coming back in the UK


Gordon Brown had a pretty awful year, with losses of safe seats in by-elections and massive poll leads for David Cameron’s Conservatives. But since the beginning of the global financial crisis, Brown’s seemingly successful attempts to get his plans adopted by other western countries, and his recovery in the Glenrothes by-election, Gordon Brown has appeared to be back in the game. This has been reflected in the latest Guardian/ICM poll, which has reduced the previous 45-30 lead for the Tories to a bare 5-point lead, with the Conservatives on 38, Labour on 33 and the Liberal Democrats up one to 19.

Julian Glover at the Guardian predicts that this could be the trigger for an early election in 2009. Since Brown cancelled plans in late 2007 for an early election, it has been expected that his long-suffering government would push out the next election to mid-2010, the latest time to hold a general election. Yet it appears that Brown’s handling of the financial crisis has given him a window to have a shot at holding onto power. The latest poll would suggest Labour coming out as the largest party in a hung parliament, which would likely lead to a second election not much later, and would likely resemble Canada’s recent history, which saw a Prime Minister replaced by his finance minister who then lost his government’s majority and forced to an early election.

However, the point remains that, while Brown could call an election any day, it remains hard to see him staying in power, and a late election in 2010 remains the most likely outcome.

NSW state Newspoll: ALP vote collapses


The latest Newspoll on NSW state politics has the Labor Party collapsing to levels even lower than seen in the last century. With the Coalition on 43%, Labor on 26%, the Greens on 14% and Others on 17%. The 2PP figures are at 59-41 in favour of the Coalition, although with Labor on such a low level and the third-party vote on 31%, two-party-preferred calculations lose all meaning.

Compared to the last Newspoll in September-October, Labor’s vote has fallen another 3 points from 29, which has largely gone to the Greens, who have recovered to 14% after falling to 11% in the last poll. The Coalition has gained 1%, at the expense of the “others” vote, which fell from a peak of 18%.

The last poll was the first after Nathan Rees took over from Morris Iemma as Labor leader and Premier. Although Rees performed better with his personal figures, the poll was a new low for the ALP in regards to voting intention, with Labor falling below 30% for the first time and the 2PP swing from 52-48 to 56-44 in favour of the Coalition. Rees had a much lower disapproval rating and returned Labor to the lead in the Preferred Premier stakes. But those figures have been wiped out. Rees is up to 47% disapproval, almost at the 52% level Iemma polled in the first poll of 2008. Barry O’Farrell was the first Liberal leader to take the lead in Preferred Premier this decade in the last two polls of Iemma’s leadership, and he has returned to that role.

So what does it mean? Labor’s support has fallen to record lows and they are on track for a massive defeat. Antony Green has calculated that, according to the pendulum, the poll would give the Coalition 57 seats, a solid majority in the Assembly.

The polling figures also suggest that many previously safe Labor seats will be vulnerable to the Greens and Independents. The Greens are solidly polling a consistent 13-14% in five of the six polls this year, which would give them a fifth seat in the Legislative Council and puts them within range of winning Balmain and Marrickville in the Legislative Assembly. With 18% support for others, you would expect that more Labor seats in the Hunter and Illawarra in particular would be vulnerable to left-leaning independents, which could reduce the ALP to a rump.

Another remarkable trend is that the Greens are now polling more than half the Labor vote, with the Liberal-Labor margin now larger than the Labor-Green margin. The Greens aren’t going to overtake Labor in the next three years, but it underlines Labor’s dire position. There is a long way to run for this government, in which they could bounce back, although trends suggest that the party continues to fall further. We will have to see if Rees can turn his government around, and how the 2010 federal election impacts on NSW, and it’s far too early to make predictions.

More analysis can be found at Poll Bludger and Pollytics.

First Dog on the Moon takes on Labor-Green tensions


I’m hoping to write some analysis of the consequences of Rudd’s climate change announcement tomorrow, but I thought you’d enjoy today’s First Dog on the Moon cartoon (subscription required) from Crikey. Sometimes you have a piece of satire that captures the truth perfectly.

PS. I hope this doesn’t violate any copyright, let me know if there’s a problem.

How do we elect our leaders? Part two


Yesterday I laid out how leaders are elected in Canada and the UK, where party members play a central role in deciding leaders, as opposed to New Zealand and Australia, where leaders are elected by members of Parliament.

So what are the merits of the alternatives? Whenever you raise the possibility of electing party leaders by the grassroots membership, you’ll be referred to the patchy history of the Australian Democrats electing its leaders through a general election of the membership. It’s true that the conflict between Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja was dragged out through a long election process, but it remains that the party room was deeply split and such a conflict probably would have continued even if the Senators had responsibility for electing leaders.

When you look at how direct election processes have elected leaders like Tony Blair, David Cameron and most recent Canadian political leaders, you would have to think that precedent suggests that a direct election process does not necessarily lead to instability and internal division any more than a process that gives the final say to a parliamentary caucus.

Issues of giving control of leadership to party members in a direct vote has come up a few times in recent years. Following the 2004 election, the Australian Greens officially appointed Senator Bob Brown as Leader after almost a decade a de facto leader. Although there was little doubt that Brown would be elected, the process of electing leader was controversial, and Brown’s favoured model of giving total control to the Party Room was approved, although some called for the decision to be made by the National Council or the membership.

In 2003, the National Presidency of the Australian Labor Party was put to the membership in a direct vote for the first time, a reform initiative of then-leader Simon Crean. With a turnout of just under 20,000 members, former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence, of the Left, was elected as President. The position is elected every three years, with the second- and third-polling candidates serving as Vice-President for the first year after the election. The Presidency is then rotated, so that the three top-polling candidates each serve one year as President and two years as Vice-President. The following election in 2006 also saw a Left candidate win, with Senator John Faulkner elected President for the year 2007, defeating SA Premier Mike Rann amongst others. Those results suggest that, despite the domination of the Right faction, ALP members are substantially more left-wing than their leadership. Which might not be that much of a surprise.

After years of internal fighting, the Victorian Liberal Party has recently implemented new preselection rules which give all members in an electorate a vote in deciding candidates for preselections. This has been seen in the upcoming campaign to succeed Petro Georgiou in Kooyong. Rather than a handful of senior party members, over 1000 party members living in Kooyong will vote in a small-scale primary to decide the Liberal candidate for the 2010 election. While not quite the same as giving members the right to decide the leadership, the principle of giving all members the right to decide their leaders in order to cut through internal wrangling remains the same.

So what are the merits of the alternatives available? The 2008 Democratic presidential primary in the United States clearly demonstrated the merits of a real election within a party. Although many worried that the lengthened Democratic race would favour McCain, it ultimately strengthened Obama as a candidate, built up Democratic membership and machines across the country and invested Democratic voters in the Obama campaign. Despite fears that division in the party would drive Clinton supporters away from the party, the issue was highly over-rated, and division was far more of a problem for McCain than Obama. Of course, no leadership election in the UK or Canada comes close to the proportion of voters participating in US primaries, but the principle is the same. A real election will beat a focus group or opinion poll in proving a candidate’s worth any day.

History shows that Canadian and UK leadership elections inspire parties in a way that nothing else does. When an inspiring figure is a candidate, or a debate over the direction of the party is taking place, a large-scale election can work like nothing else. Parties recruit large numbers of new members who become organised and politicised in a way that is hard to do otherwise. The New Zealand Greens’ 2006 leadership race provided an opportunity for the party to debate the way forward: should they remain committed to supporting a Labour government, or would their agenda be better advanced by being flexible and being able to work with the Nationals? Most importantly, it makes for better leaders. There can be plenty of ulterior motives for MPs or senior officials to support a particular leader despite not being the best person for the job. But no-one can win a large-scale election without having a decent level of campaign ability.

Of course, there are arguments against allowing voters and party members a say in deciding their leaders. A party’s membership base tends to be more extreme than the voter base, and can support candidates with less popular appeal. Successful opposition leaders tend to be elected by expanding their party’s voter base rather than simply relying on their existing support base. But you have to wonder why such a narrow group of Australians are represented in today’s political party memberships. Surely it has something to do with the complete lack of influence in major parties given to the grassroots membership? If you gave members of, say, the ALP, a significant say over who is the leader of the party, it would be a greater motivation to join than anything else you could offer. It would undoubtedly broaden the base of the party. And if there is one group of people less politically diverse than members of political parties, it’s the MPs and officials that run those parties.

The one complaint heard most when people object to letting more people have a say in electing party leaders, it is that a widespread election process airs out private party matters and internal divisions, which of course is true. You can’t expect that issues raised in a process involving thousands or tens of thousands of members to remain private. But if you look at recent contested party leadership races, such as the ongoing battles between Kim Beazley and Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd respectively, or the ongoing Turnbull-Nelson skirmishes, it’s clear that little in terms of internal party divisions ever remains private, regardless of the method of election. If MPs can leak sensitive party matters without the party collapsing into public disrepute, then it makes sense that no more damage can be done by an open and genuinely democratic process.

It’s a big culture shock in Australian politics to suggest that our country’s political leadership is chosen not in smoke-filled rooms but in openly democratic processes that encourage many more Australians to actively participate in elections where their votes genuinely matter. It could be the best solution to the widespread dissatisfaction with modern Australian democracy that we could find.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to test out WordPress’ polling mechanism, so I thought I’d post one to see what people think. Please post your comments about what I’ve argued. Do you think we need a change in how we elect our leaders?

How do we elect our leaders? Part one


After the events of the last few weeks further demonstrated the inability of Stephane Dion to remain as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Dion announced last Monday that he would resign as soon as the party chose an interim leader. Dion had announced his resignation following the October election, and a leadership convention was planned for May, with three contenders. On Monday 8th, Dominic LeBlanc withdrew and supported Michael Ignatieff, and Ignatieff’s main rival, former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, withdrew on Tuesday, giving room for Ignatieff to be elected interim Leader by the Liberal Party executive in consultation with the caucus on Wednesday 10th December. The convention will still be held in May, but is expected to be a coronation, with Ignatieff solidly in place as Leader of the Opposition or even Prime Minister. The difficulty the Liberal Party had in reconciling its lengthy leadership process with the need to make a quick decisions raises some interesting issues about how political parties elect their leaders. Canadian parties use various methods of allowing their members to have a say in electing members. The Liberal Party elect leaders at a convention that resembles old-fashioned US presidential conventions, where candidates are gradually knocked out until one gets support of the majority. The last convention in 2006 had about 2600 delegates voting at the convention. The NDP, BQ and the Conservatives all use various processes that give all members a vote. The NDP gives 75% of votes to members of the party, and 25% of votes to members of affiliated organisations, which are mainly labour unions. Over 58,000 votes were cast at the last leadership election in 2003. The Conservatives use a weighted system that gives 100 points to each of 308 ridings. The ridings are distributed proportionally according to how the members living in that riding voted. The BQ appears to use a simple “one vote one value” system, and the last leadership election saw about 48,000 members vote. Most Canadian provincial parties also seem to have shifted towards a “one vote one value” system as well. UK political parties likewise use various systems that put the ultimate say largely in the hands of grassroots members while giving some say to Members of Parliament. The British Labour Party uses a system which weights votes so that 1/3 of the vote is cast by members of the constituency parties, 1/3 by members of affiliated organisations (mainly labour unions) and 1/3 by members of Parliamentary Labour Party. In the only contested leadership election in 1994, Tony Blair won 57% of the vote, with a majority in all three parts of the electoral college. The British Conservative Party uses a process whereby candidates face voting by Members of Parliament until there are only two candidates remaining, and then the two proceed to a vote of all grassroots members. In the 2005 election, four candidates nominated. David Davis received the most votes in the first round, but Cameron took the clear lead after the lowest-polling candidate was eliminated. In the members’ vote, almost 200,000 votes were cast, and Cameron won clearly with 67% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats use a straight one-vote-one-value process, although each candidate must be nominated by at least 10% of the parliamentary party. Members vote with a preference ballot. Following the 2006 resignation of Charles Kennedy, 52,000 members voted, with Menzies Campbell winning 44% of the primary vote, being elected on preferences, beating Chris Huhne with 58% of the preference vote. Another leadership election in 2007 saw Nick Clegg beat Chris Huhne by a slim margin of 511 votes out of 41,000 cast. In contrast, Australia and New Zealand politics tends towards members of Parliament deciding leaders. The only exceptions I can find are the NZ Green Party and the Australian Democrats, although only two state Greens parties have official leaders (ACT and Tasmania), so Greens MPs sit in Parliaments in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia without any elected leader. The New Zealand Green Party has two co-leaders, and they are elected by delegates to the national conference of the party. Their constitution requires that one leader be male and the other female. The party’s original leaders, Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimmons, remained in place for the 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005 elections, and the only recent election took place in 2006 following the death of Rod Donald shortly after the 2005 election. The election was contested by MP Nandor Tanczos, former MP Mike Ward and party members Russel Norman and David Clendon. Due to the fact that four of the six Greens MPs were female, there was a high chance that the new male co-leader would not be an MP, and in the end Norman defeated Tanczos in a preference ballot. Norman became leader outside Parliament and was elected to Parliament to fill Tanczos’ seat when he resigned in mid-2008, and Norman was re-elected at the 2008 election. I was planning on going into what we should do in Australia as far as electing our leaders, but this has gotten too long, so: Tomorrow: what should we do in Australia? What would happen to our politics if grassroots members got to decide who became party leader?

The Daily Show does Canada


It’s been a while since I’ve posted Daily Show clips, so I thought I’d put up Monday night’s Daily Show coverage of the Canadian constitutional crisis, I particularly enjoyed the second segment’s meandering into the republic debate.

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US Congress update


Over the last few days most of the remaining undecided seats have been decided. In CA-04 the Republican has held on, while the Democrat was elected in OH-15. In the Louisiana delayed elections last week, it appears that the Democrats could be on track to losing two seats. Corrupt congressman William Jefferson has been defeated by Joseph Cao, who will become the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress. In Louisiana’s 4th Congressional District, it is currently a dead heat and will be the last one to be decided. The seats currently stand at 257-177, with 1 outstanding.

In the Senate, Senator Saxby Chambliss was safely re-elected in the runoff election in Georgia. After a recount, the race in Minnesota remains extremely close, and will be decided by the resolution of the specific challenges made by either campaign. As it stands, the Senate is made up of 56 Democrats, 41 Republicans, 2 Independents and 1 Undecided.

I’ve updated the US congressional results maps on the “maps” page.

Quebec election: Liberals regain majority


I don’t know enough about Canadian politics to do in-depth coverage of provincial elections, but I thought I’d do a wrap-up of yesterday’s provincial election in Quebec.

Liberal Party premier Jean Charest was re-elected as Premier. Charest was a minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was the sole minister to survive the 1993 landslide, becoming PC Leader. After recovering ground in the 1997 federal election, Charest moved to Quebec politics, leading the Liberals into the 1998 election, which saw the separatist Parti Québécois government re-elected with a similar result.

At the 2003 election the PQ was defeated, and Charest was elected Premier, leading a majority Liberal government. While the party is called the “Liberal Party”, it does not have formal links with the Federal Liberals, and the main dividing line between the Liberals and the PQ were along federalist/sovereigntist lines, with Charest effectively leading the anti-separatist effort in Quebec. The election also saw the right-wing Action démocratique du Québec gain seats. After its leader Mario Dumont won the party’s only seat in 1994 and 1998, the party won four seats in 2003.

After four years in office, Charest went to an election in 2007. The surging ADQ won a massive 37 seats, bringing them to 41 seats. The result was an effective three-way tie in both popular vote and seats. Charest’s Liberals formed a minority government with 48 seats, while the ADQ won 41 against 36 for the PQ.

Yesterday’s result, only 21 months after the last election, saw an expected result, with the Liberals regaining a slim majority, with 66 seats, and the PQ regaining its clear position as the Official Opposition, with 51 seats. The ADQ was decimated, falling to 7 seats, which saw Mario Dumont resign as leader of the party he founded.

So after the last 21 months, it appears that Quebec politics has returned to the norm of a centre-right federalist party and a centre-left independence party, which has existed for the last 35 years, and the PQ are now in a position to return to government in 2012.

Sky News launches A-SPAN


Sky News, Foxtel and Austar announced today that they will be launching a new network, A-SPAN, modelled on the US C-SPAN, which broadcasts live, unedited feeds of the US Congress.

The network will launch on January 20 broadcasting the inauguration of US President-Elect Barack Obama. In addition to broadcasting the Australian Parliament, A-SPAN apparently also plans to broadcast question time sessions from the Parliaments of NSW, Victoria and Queensland, as well as broadcasts from the NZ Parliament and the UK House of Commons.

Apparently it will be affiliated with C-SPAN, and will broadcast some of C-SPAN’s content on A-SPAN. Apparently, in addition there will be broadcasts of the Australian Parliament on C-SPAN (in the middle of the night when US members of Congress are sleeping), which is a fascinating idea.

It’s a bit unclear how all of this can be screened in only 24 hours a day. After all, C-SPAN is made up of three channels in addition to C-SPAN radio, but it’s still sure to be very interesting to see.

In addition to being part of the basic package of both Foxtel and Austar, it seems that A-SPAN will also be available online and digital free-to-air television.

It’s also a rare example of commercial media in Australia making a decision that isn’t simply driven by ratings, which is fantastic.

Italy’s overseas seats


ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing program broadcast a fascinating program two weekends ago regarding the interaction of Italian and Australian politics arising from Italy’s expatriate seats.

The 2006 Italian election was the first election since the Italian electoral system was changed to include seats in Parliament dedicated to Italian citizens living abroad. This system divides the entire world into a number of electorates, including the “Oceania” electorate, which elects one Italian MP to the Chamber of Deputies and one Senator, in an area covering Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Asia, Africa and Antarctica. Despite the vast expanse of the electorate, most live voters live in Australia, particularly in Melbourne.

The program lays out the fascinating complications added to the political system when elections spill over national boundaries. In particular, the centre-left coalition L’Unione came into conflict with Italian-Australians and particularly Italian-Australian members of the Australian Labor Party through the Italian-Australian Labor Network. Figures such as Victorian state MP Carlo Carli and Mayor of Moreland Joe Caputto. The IALN signed a factional agreement with Italy’s centre-left parties agreeing that Italian-Australian ALP members would support the centre-left candidates in exchange for control over future preselections.

It raises interesting questions about its effectiveness, the ethics of giving citizens living abroad a say over the government of a country they no longer live in, and how it could be used for other countries.

In New Zealand, the NZ Green Party has repeatedly nominated a handful of NZ expatriates living in Australia and the UK, some of which are active in the local Green parties. Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples recently proposed that, now that one-eighth of Maoris live in Australia, an eighth Maori seat should be established in Australia. How would this inter-relate with Australian politics, particularly in Queensland where a majority of Maori expatriates live? What about the large numbers of New Zealanders living in Australia?

Over one million Australians live overseas. Should electorates be established in the UK, China, Japan, the United States? It might seem unconstitutional at first glance, but then again there is no reference to Territory electorates in the constitution either. The concept of a Member of the House of Representatives representing Australians in China raises the issue of how a foreign democratic election could be conducted in a dictatorship.

What do you think? How do we represent the hundreds of thousands of Australian voters disenfranchised by living overseas? How would Australian politics be influenced by electing MPs representing expatriates?