Why a Labor leadership election is necessary

Tomorrow we will (hopefully) get confirmation that the Australian Labor Party will be holding its first direct election of its Federal Parliamentary Leader. Bill Shorten has already declared his intentions and Anthony Albanese is expected to join him. It will be a day for all rank-and-file members to celebrate because it will be the beginning of democratisation of the Labor Party.

Why it is necessary

There are three main reasons why a direct election contest for the party leadership is necessary: neutralising the leadership issue, rebuilding the base and challenging the public perception that Labor does not stand for anything.

Neutralising the leadership issue

While some have tried to derail the process, Labor needs to have a direct election for pragmatic reasons. After the farcical merry-go-round of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, it needs to show it has learnt its lesson and is changing. An open, transparent contest for the leadership of the Labor Party is what is needed, not some stitch-up behind the scenes. The leader must not only have broad support but the public needs to have confidence that they cannot be dispatched at a whim. An uncontested ballot where Bill Shorten emerges as leader would also only reinforce existing perceptions about Labor and internal machinations.

Rebuilding the base

In Opposition, Labor will need to rebuild and energise its membership base. It is a pressing concern because Labor will have limited resources. Unions will come under attack from the Coalition’s Royal Commission and Labor is likely to lose the South Australian and Tasmanian elections next year. Victoria is a toss-up, leaving the ACT, one small jurisdiction with a Labor-Green Government.

The sandbagging of Western Sydney shows that the greatest asset Labor has are its members. Labor will need more and more active members if it believes direct voter contact is how it will win campaigns into the future. The contest will give members a sense of ownership and confidence that party democratisation is being taken seriously. It will hopefully encourage more people to join the party, become active and volunteer on campaigns.

Inability to stand for anything

Labor needs to challenge the perception that it does not stand for anything. Part of the problem with the last Government its a failure to be clearly communication to the public what Labor stood for. A recent Essential Poll found that only 38% thought Labor was clear about what it stood for. Labor needs this contest to reaffirm its values and emphasis what it stands for. John McTernan is spot on when he says:

The worst thing possible now would be a coronation. Australia needs to understand the values of Labor’s next leader. What drives them? What will they do? Will they understand voters’ concerns? Unity must be earned not imposed, otherwise it is the unity of the graveyard. So, a proper 15 round heavyweight bout is what Labor needs – with manifestos, headland speeches, town-hall meetings, street-corner meetings and debates. Let all the possible leaders lug it out. Labor is blessed with a number of potential contenders – show them off.

Rebuilding public confidence in what Labor stands for will only be the first step. Any talk will need to be linked to actions to challenge the perception that Labor will do anything for a vote and will break its promises in power if Labor is to win back Government.

The process

I have previously written about the 50/50 election model and some of the flaws in it. While not my preferred model, it is far better than the current system.

Nominations for the position of leader will be open for seven days from the caucus meeting tomorrow, followed by fourteen days for rank-and-file members to vote if there is more than one nomination. Of Labor Party members, 31,000 out of 44,000 members would be eligible based on membership of two years

With a predicted 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 31 Senators, each parliamentarians’ vote would be worth approximately 365 members votes. Given that the Right caucus has endorsed Shorten, most of their votes are likely to fall his way. It is unclear if he will get a majority or if he does, whether it will be enough to overcome the rank-and-file vote.

In other contests, an acting leader has been appointed for the duration of the contest. British Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman had that role for four months during the British Labour contest. One would assume Senate leader Penny Wong would become acting leader.

Whatever the outcome is, the democratisation of leadership selection is something that members of all political parties should welcome. Once it is embedded in the Labor Party, it is likely to spread and lead to democratisation of other leadership selections. Tomorrow will be just the beginning of party modernisation across the country.

UPDATE: According to Phillip Hudson, the acting leader will be Chris Bowen as the leader must be in the House of Representatives.


One Comment

  1. Agree with this totally. Looking forward to here a contest of ideas between Shorten and Albanese. Would prefer Albo but I wouldn’t see Shorten being the end of the world either… not a bad situation for Labor to be in at all!


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