Australian Labor leadership election

The ballot papers that rank-and-file members of the Australian Labor Party will receive this week are for the most important vote they will ever have as a member. For the first time, rank-and-file members will vote for the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party leader.

For a party that was often a pioneer amongst social democratic and labour parties, it seems odd that Australian Labor was the last major centre-left party in an English-speaking Westminster democracy to embrace the direct election of the leader.

A lot of that is due to the experience of the Australian Democrats, a socially liberal third party. The Democrats were a successful minor party for three decades, holding the balance of power in the Australian Senate and having representation in state parliaments. The party imploded after the membership of the party elected a federal leader that were not supported by the caucus room. The party now has no parliamentary representation and has been overtaken by the Greens. The Democrats have been cited by many opponents of the direct election of leader.


Why was it adopted?

The sudden implementation of direct election was intended to be a circuit-breaker, to show that Kevin Rudd was cleaning up and reforming the Labor Party. The idea of the direct election of leader, however, did not come from nowhere. There had been conferences debates about direct elections for the previous two years. Support for the direct election of leader had come from both the Left faction and pro-reform elements of the Right faction.

Much of the pro-reform push comes from New South Wales where both the Left and much of the Right understand Labor needs to change to survive. The “revolving door”, where New South Wales Labor went through three state Premiers in a four year term before its worst result in a century,has shaped this debate, as has the instability associated with the Rudd-Gillard contests.

Interestingly, the 50/50 model that was adopted by federal Labor was rarely discussed in any of these debates. One Member One Vote or a three section Electoral College were more commonly suggested. Former Treasurer Chris Bowen has been the main (if not only) public advocate this model and undoubtedly it was adopted because he was a close confidant of Kevin Rudd.

Prior to the current leadership election, the last time Labor directly elected its leader was in the late 1920s and 1930s in New South Wales. In 1927, under Premier Jack Lang, NSW Labor voted to give members the power to elect the leader at conferences. This existed until 1939 Unity Conference that re-united the NSW Labor Party which had split into two separate labour parties.


The 50/50 model

The direct election model is a two section Electoral College, with half of the vote allocated to federal Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) and half to rank-and-file members of the Labor Party. MPs had a week to nominate for the leadership and will only vote in the MPs Electoral College.

All rank-and-file members who were a financial member on Election Day (September 7) will all get a vote. The rank-and-file eligibility to vote was changed by the National Executive. It was previously the same eligibility as voting for the ALP National President.

The next most senior Labor MP in the House of Representatives will be acting leader until the contest is over. The Deputy Leader and Senate leadership will still be elected by the Caucus.

The ballot will be conducted by postal ballot and on October 13, the new federal Labor leader will be announced. A copy of the rules are available here.


The fight over direct election

When direct election was announced, there was contention over whether direct election was allowed.In the current ALP National Rules,Clause 4 of Part C – National Principles of Organisation states:

In all parliaments, the parliamentary leadership, the Ministry and Shadow Ministry shall be elected by the Parliamentary Labor Party.

These rules have been previously circumvented by changing the rules of the FPLP. For example, Kevin Rudd changed the FPLP rules to allow him to choose the Ministry instead of Caucus. It is essentially a fudge of the rules that will hold so long as 50% + 1 of the Caucus does not want to change it.

It is likely that the national rules will be amended at the next National Conference to enshrine the direct election of leader in the national rules and remove the reliance on Caucus rules. There may, however, be a push to change the model used to elect the leader.

Since the announcement of the 50/50 model, there has been a push by some right-wing unions, led by Tony Sheldon, the National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union (who is also the Labor National Senior-Vice President) to amend it to a three section Electoral College based on the British Labour model with votes equally divided. It’s worth noting that the Tasmanian Labor Party amended its rules in 2012 to allow the direct election of the leader based on the British Labour model, pending amendment of the national rules.

It is unclear how successful this push to change 50/50 will be and it may depend on who becomes the new Labor leader. It is more likely to change if Shorten becomes leader given his links with right-wing unions.


The leadership contest

Who will win?

In the battle between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, the margin of victory in the rank-and-file section will determine who wins. Based on public declarations, MPs appear to be voting along factional lines, something that has not occurred since 1991.

Bill Shorten has openly said that a majority of Caucus will support him for leader and it is said that he has the backing of the Right faction which is 54% of Caucus. He also has declared support from at least two MPs from a rival sub-faction within the Left: Warren Snowdon and Laurie Ferguson.

Anthony Albanese’s vote is from the Left faction, however, it has been suggested that parts of the Queensland Right may vote for him. Former Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan posted what he thinks should be considered when voting for the leader which people have interpreted as an endorsement of Albanese and former MP Arch Bevis (a member of the Labor Right) launched Albanese’s campaign in Brisbane.

If Albanese is to win, it is likely he will need over 60% of the rank-and-file vote.The signs so far are positive. Reports from Albanese campaign volunteers are that the vast majority of rank-and-file members contacted are saying they are either supporting Albanese or undecided. This has even included a number of former right-wing MPs.


How the campaigns are being run

While there have been some sly digs by the candidates at one another, the campaign has been mostly quite civil. It is worth noting that the campaigns being run are quite differently and have demonstrated the different styles of each candidates.

Albanese has focused on acting as if he is the Opposition Leader, attacking the Coalition and has held larger events that have been open to the media. He spoken about being an infrastructure Prime Minister, emphasised his ability to unite different people and that “what you see, is what you get”.

Bill Shorten has been doing smaller member events and has attempted to sketch out what his vision would be as Prime Minister. He has repeatedly stated that the Labor Party needs to be brave, be the party for the powerless and must be relevant to the future of all Australians. Some issues he has focusing on include science, domestic violence and immigration.


Party reform

There has been some criticism by those outside of the party about the lack of clear difference between the candidates on policy. It is difficult for the candidates to lay out a policy platform given that policy is set by the Caucus and party rather than by the leader.

There is, however, a big difference on party reform. Responding to a survey by the group Local Labor, Shorten and Albanese have outlined their positions on party reform. Albanese committed to implementing all the recommendations of the 2010 ALP National Review while Shorten has not committed to any measures that would change the balance of power in the party. Given that the Victorian Right have been less gung-ho for party reform, a Shorten-led Labor Party is unlikely to enact the sweeping party reform that is necessary to modernise and democratise the party.

Regardless of the result, the election has been a good thing for the Australian Labor Party. Instead of the despair associated with an election loss, many members feel energised and many supporters have or are considering joining the Labor Party for the first time. For the first time in a long time, there is a sense of a real contest and that the result will not be known until the announcement on October 13. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the genie of direct election has been let out of the bottle and there’s no turning back.


Cross-posted from The Progress Report


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