ALP and NZ Labour experiment with leadership in parallel


On Thursday, we saw former Labor Senate leader Stephen Conroy come out attacking the new Labor leadership rules pushed through by Kevin Rudd during his very brief second stint as Prime Minister.

He said the Coalition are “getting away with murder” while Labor’s leadership remains in a vacuum.

“We’ve got no leader, no frontbench, no shadow spokespersons who are able to lead the debate for us, and this will descend into complete and utter farce,” he said.

“We have a situation where the US might bomb Syria [and] we have no official party spokesman, we have no leader.

“These new rules were a farce when they were put in place – rules that have left us helpless.”

It’s not surprising that Conroy isn’t a fan of a process that takes power out of the hands of the Labor leadership and gives it to members, but there are real questions raised about the downsides of lengthy leadership contests.

The reality is that, in many countries, parties go an extended period of time without a permanent leader while choosing a successor. In this period, an interim leader is usually appointed.

A lot of the details about how Labor will conduct their contest remain vague, unsurprisingly considering that the idea only emerged a few months ago: it’s unclear if the ‘rank and file’ vote will be announced before the caucus votes, and it seems likely that the most senior leader not running will take over as acting leader, which would be Penny Wong if Anthony Albanese decides to run.

In 2010, when the UK Labour Party chose a new leader following Gordon Brown’s defeat, Brown quickly resigned and his deputy Harriet Harman served as acting leader throughout the contest, and there was a full panel of shadow ministers during this period.

There is no reason to think the same won’t apply in the case of the ALP’s leadership election.

Right now, the New Zealand Labour party is going through the same process as Australian Labor. The party decided after the 2011 election to implement a direct election model, where 40% of the vote is cast by members, 40% by MPs and 20% by unions. Apart from the 20% union vote, this reflects the model proposed for the ALP.

At the moment three candidates are running: Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe and Shane Jones have nominated, and are out campaigning. All three have been given the opportunity to ask questions of the Prime Minister during Question Time, and have participated in at least one televised debate.

Of course it’s possible that a direct leadership election can reveal divisions and bring up conflict, but the last three years in the federal ALP have demonstrated that divisions and conflict can get out anyway.

On the other hand, a direct election has the potential to engage new supporters, give members more of an investment in supporting the party leadership and providing the leadership candidates a platform to present their messages.

It’s also true that, in most circumstances, candidates who engage in negative or nasty campaigning won’t be rewarded by party members, even if swinging voters may do so in a general election.

Of course, a direct election of a leader creates a different incentive when it comes to Australia’s culture of cuttign down leaders. I’ve previously blogged about how Australian leaders tend to be much more likely to be replaced withuout facing an election than leaders in similar countries that directly elect their leaders.

If a leader is directly elected, they have a greater mandate from the members and have moral authority which will limit the power of the MPs to remove them (no wonder Conroy isn’t a fan). The 60% threshold (75% in government) practically limits MPs’ power, but the requirement to have a direct ballot also makes a sudden coup impossible.

These factors then makes the idea of cutting down a leader less attractive, and motivate MPs and members to support them in situations where they might otherwise look for an alternative.

Because of this, it’s possible that, for once, the leader who wins this contest may be capable of sticking around in the long term.

Read my previous posts about direct election.

Read David Farrar’s analysis of the NZ Labour leadership contest.

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  1. Well said. I for one think that a leadership contest would actually put the spotlight on good ALP policy and would also help increase and retain membership.

  2. The best thing about this contest is that if run successfully it will kill this idea that you can’t directly elect the party leader because of the Australian Democrats. I can imagine that state Labor branches and the Greens will adopt some form of direct election and inevitably even the Coalition parties will. Labor’s leadership contest is something everyone who believes in direct election should welcome regardless of your party affiliation.

  3. It is a very foolish idea, implemented in Australia as part of Rudd’s self-justification against Gillard.

    The Parliamentary leader needs to have the support of members.

    This proposal would mean that a PM can stay in power without the support even of his or her members let alone the house, and so is incompatible with the Westminster system. In placid times it may work for a while, but will lead to disaster at the first crisis; like the famous umbrella full or holes, that worked fine unless it was raining.

    Yes the ALP needs to democratise, but involves the hard work to attracting members by genuine community activism and giving them real power over party structures and policy. Not this phony quick fix.

    [corrected post]

  4. Jeremy, it’s standard practice in the UK and Canada and most mainland European democracies, and is now being implemented in New Zealand. What is it about Australia that makes it a bad idea here and not elsewhere?

  5. This proposal would mean that a PM can stay in power without the support even of his or her members let alone the house, and so is incompatible with the Westminster system

    Every other English speaking Westminster democracy has the direct election of leader in at least one of its major parties. In Canada and the United Kingdom, it is ALL of the parties. In most cases, MPs have less than 50% of the vote in the leadership election, e.g. the Canadian NDP and Irish Labour use OMOV while MPs only have 40% of the vote in NZ Labour and 33% in the UK Labour.

  6. Ben, why do you assume it is a good idea anywhere? These sorts of rules mean parties get stuck with bad leaders well past the time it is obvious the person should go. And the 60/75% trigger to start a ballot is so ridiculously high as to be laughable.

  7. I don’t think the 60/75 threshold is necessary or adviseable, as the very act of triggering an election is difficult enough that it serves as enough of a deterrent, but it makes sense if you consider that the caucus could have not supported as a majority a candidate for leader, it shouldn’t then on its own be able to effectively void that election if it wasn’t happy with a legitimate result.

    I don’t assume that it’s a good idea just because it happens – it’s a good idea because it’s democratic, it works, and what we have now doesn’t work. It’s outrageous that political parties restrict their leadership elections to small cabals and they should all broaden out.

  8. To believe it works, you’d have to look at the other places in the world that use this and say that their systems put up better candidates. I just don’t think that is credible. And democracy is not always a good thing. Just as MPs and senators make decisions on issues of national importance instead of sending every decision to the people through plebiscites, MPs and senators are in the best position to assess potential leaders. You said that caucus shouldn’t be able to effectively void an election if they disagree with the result, but it would be a terrible sign for the party if the caucus wanted to do so. If the parliamentary party feels it can’t work with the person the membership stuck them with, how the hell is the party going to be effective?

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