Choosing a new Labor leader

By October 4, 2013ABC, History, Politics

After a small flurry of stories, as Bill Shorten and then Anthony Albanese announced their candidatures, the ‘struggle’ for the Labor leadership has gone very quiet. I don’t know what is happening out there in Laborland, and we all have still to learn exactly how the Labor membership dealt with having the ‘say’ that was to be the point of the whole change.

And the pause has given me a chance to think about what all this means. On the whole, I am in favour of it, though the proof will be, not in the ‘pudding’, the outcome, but in the making of it, the process. Given the century-old history of branch-stacking and similar rorting inside the structure of the ALP, it will be a huge victory if the process turns out to have been fair and honest.

Why do I care? I’m not and never have been a member of the Labor Party, though I have often voted for its candidates in lower house seats; for the Senate I like to think about all the options. Well, the Labor Party is an important bit of our political infrastructure, and Labor Governments have been our lot for about a third of the time since the modern party system began in 1910. Labor represents a perspective that to a greater or lesser degree every Australian shares at some time: the view that equality in treatment and opportunity is important, that those having a hard time of it deserve our sympathy and support, and that it can be important for workers to organise and have a strong voice.

Labor and the Nationals can vie for which is the oldest of the major parties: both were in action in the early 1890s. But there is no doubt which party has been the noisiest, the most declamatory, and the one attracting the most media attention from the very beginning — Labor. It matters to nearly everyone how well it is organised and, at the present moment, how the party’s parliamentary leader is chosen.

Although Australia led the way in democratic experiment in the early 20th century, we have been a conservative lot for a long time now, as though there is no need for further innovation. But a vote of those outside a parliament in connection with the election of the party leader is quite common elsewhere.  The primaries before the American Presidential election represent an obvious case.

The UK and the NZ Labour parties also have direct election of the party leaders, and no doubt Kevin Rudd got the idea from them. As I understand it, the cause in each country was declining membership, which posed a threat to the parties’ capacity to get out the vote on election day. In Australia, where getting out the vote is not such a problem, the membership has declined astronomically. In addition, unions have a large say in Labor’s party life, though only 18 per cent of workers are organised in unions.

While I thought that some of Kevin Rudd’s ideas, especially about the party leader, were self-serving and bizarre, I think direct election is a good idea, and it will be interesting to see if the other parties think it is the way to go. Mr Rudd did not follow the British example by giving the unions any role in the process. It will be interesting to see what reaction, if any, the unions have to the process and the outcome. There hasn’t been much so far — in public, anyway.

Inasmuch as the rules are available, they look like this:

1. If you were a financial member of the ALP on election day, you are entitled to vote.

2. The vote is by post, and party members were to receive their ballot papers once nominations closed on Friday September 20th. They then had two weeks in which to return their votes.  I’m not sure about the final date on which postal votes will be received.

3. After that closing date, the MPs and Senators will vote.

4. They will not know the outcome of the membership vote when it is time to cast their own votes.

5. Members and parliamentarians have 50 per cent of the weight in the final outcome.

On the face of it, this is an open and transparent system. I assume there are party officials involved, and I hope they too respect the open-ness and transparency of the new process. On the face of it, Bill Shorten is the candidate of the Right, and Anthony Albanese the candidate of the Left. How members will vote is anyone’s guess, as is the outcome.

Both are credible candidates, and so far at least they have conducted their campaigns with courtesy. If the outcome is a success, and party membership zooms upwards, I would not be surprised to see at least the Liberal Party following suit, in due course, methodically, steadily…


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