The contagious effect of directly electing the party leader

Earlier today, the ABC reported that the Tasmanian Greens are considering a series of reforms to democratise their party.

The Tasmanian Greens are notorious as the least democratic branch of the Greens. With no rank-and-file input into preselections, the Tasmanian Greens make the Labor Party look like a vibrant participatory democracy. This is in contrast to almost every other Greens branch where One Member One Vote rank-and-file preselections are the norm.

Amongst the reforms is a proposal for party members to directly elect the leader and have the ability to remove them. While no detail has been provided about the proposed model, the fact that they are proposing this change is important.

In their 2012 book, Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders, William Cross and Andre Blais point out that almost all the established parties that have democratised leadership selection after a disappointing electoral result, something the Tasmanian Greens have just experienced, and that there is a contagion effect “inducing parties to converge in the way they select their leader.”

At the time, Cross and Blais concluded there was no clear indication of a contagion effect in Australia and New Zealand while they identified one in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Australia was cited as an example of the contagion effect in reverse with many politicians interviewed citing the example of the Australian Democrats as a reason why direct election would not be adopted.

This however seems to be changing. New Zealand Labour adopted direct elections last year while federally and all states (bar Victoria and South Australia to date) have adopted the direct election of the Parliamentary Labor Party leader.

The coming debate within the Tasmanian Greens about the direct election of leader suggests there is a contagion effect at play in Australia. The success of Labor’s direct election after a disappointing election result has meant that the idea of direct elections is being seriously considered across party lines.

If the Tasmanian Greens do adopt direct election of the leader, it is likely that other state branches will follow. It may also only be a matter of time before the Coalition joins in and directly elects their leader but it will all depend on electoral results and grassroots pressure.

UPDATE 15/9/14: I have been informed that other than federally, in Tasmania and in Victoria, there is no formal leader. It may be that direct elections are intertwined with the creation of a formal leader role in other states.

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