The last three years in particular have been a time of much discussion and soul-searching within the Australian Labor Party. A little over three years ago a first-term PM was deposed with the aid of powerful factional forces and replaced with his deputy. The party vote plummeted not long after the 2010 election and after three years of internal chaos and division the vanquished Kevin Rudd was returned as Labor leader and Prime Minister by more than half the ALP caucus.
Upon his return – and leading up to it actually – the revived Prime Minister promised change. Kevin Rudd promised us that he had changed. He was no longer a micro-managing, frantic and overbearing leader of the Labor Party. Rudd also promised a slight policy shift in certain areas.
By far the biggest, most publicised element of Rudd’s change agenda is the internal reform proposals he has put forward since he was returned as Australia’s Prime Minister. These matters’ of Labor housekeeping include proposed changes to how the party selects and disposes of a leader and how a future Labor ministry will be picked.
There are of course changes which have been proposed as a result of the events in New South Wales, but this piece is not concerned with those proposed changes.
People in policy know of one basically universal rule which applies to policy decisions, and that is that there are almost always unintended consequences – pros and cons of almost every choice made. There are possible unintended consequences and negative outcomes from the ALP renewal proposals which Prime Minister Rudd will put to the party on July 22.
On the potential plus side, a PM free from the knife-wielding wrath of backbenchers with intense factional loyalties would ensure leadership stability and promote a feeling of certainty across the electorate at large – most importantly with the swinging voter who might have backed the party in at the ballot box.
On the face of it, it may not appear that there are downsides to Kevin Rudd’s announcement that a Labor Prime Minister elected by the people will not face the knife of backbenchers, except under extraordinary circumstances.
But there is a downside. A leader who becomes toxic to the party in an electoral sense would be next to impossible to remove as the criteria for removal is set pretty high. A leader would only face removal after having brought the party into disrepute according to 75% of the caucus.
It is also rather difficult to argue against the idea that the rank-and-file members of the Australian Labor Party have a fifty percent say in the election of a leader for the parliamentary arm of the party. The move is quite democratic and fair and rather unique in the Australian political environment, though whether or not it will result in more people rushing to join the ALP is less than clear.
On the downside, the process will be potentially expensive and would leave the party effectively leaderless for 30 days after a wrenching defeat.
With regard to the ideas put forward by Rudd on the leadership side of the equation, there have also been fears that branches will be stacked by unions trying to gain more influence under a slightly less union-friendly environment within the party organisation if these changes are successfully passed.
In terms of parliamentary reform, the other thing Rudd has proposed, which has been flagged for some time, is a restoration of the ability of the ALP caucus to decide who wins coveted ministerial positions.
With caucus able to determine the frontbench, there is the potential for less division within the caucus. Only those with majority support would be successful, leading to a stable team. At least that’s the theory.
With caucus again able to elect ministers, the factions are as important as ever. The powerful factions will dominate the ministry. Those with little factional loyalty, and even those more suitably qualified, may miss out on roles altogether, though the latter will happen regardless of the model for choosing the frontbench.
Kevin Rudd has probably moved as much as he could. What caucus decides will be keenly watched by political observers, though the whispers appear to indicate that the changes will be agreed to by the party room when it meets in a couple of weeks’ time. What the broader union movement feels and how they react will also be a point of interest.
Whatever the outcome, there are potential consequences, good and bad.
Yesterday was an abnormally quiet and subdued day by recent parliamentary standards with tempers comparatively subdued and the shoutyness of Parliament House at a more reasonable level. Probably helping the matter was the comparative lack of focus on the Craig Thomson/Health Services Union matter which, while prosecuted during Question Time, didn’t reach the proportions that we have become accustomed to in parliamentary and political debate. The fact that there was again no suspension of Standing Orders motion for the entire hour and ten minutes or so of Question Time today probably served to help quell tempers and give the parliament at least the appearance of a modicum of modesty.
But alas my friends, tomorrow is another day and in this very minority parliament we have learnt that just about any depth will be plumbed and no stone left un-turned. We have also learnt that this 43rd parliament has in it the innate ability to surprise, even if that is rare and surprises cannot be discounted for Question Time today.
But this is probably how it will unfold:
The Coalition have used Monday and Tuesday in Question Time to pursue the matter of the Enterprise Migration Agreement that was struck between the Gillard Government and Gina Rinehart and endorsed today, with further safeguards inserted, by the Labor caucus. They have done so because of the reported divisions and lack of consultation between the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister in the matter so there is a chance that they will continue to pursue this matter in Question Time tomorrow in the House of Representatives, possibly until the end of parliament on Thursday.
A return to an intense focus on the carbon tax by the Opposition is a real possibility, with questions related to the matter rarely being displaced from the main forum of Question Time, especially when the commencement date nears and the compensation has commenced flowing.
It is not unreasonable and indeed completely likely that the Fair Work Australia investigation into Craig Thomson will again be the subject of a question or two, perhaps three when Questions Without Notice commences tomorrow. It is likely that there will be a question or questions related to a memo that was sent three years ago by Fair Work Australia which suggested that the authorities should be called in to inquire into the Health Services Union as there were questions on the matter yesterday.
For the ALP Government the narrative will be just as predictable with it beyond all doubt that the majority of questions tomorrow and on Thursday most likely being all about selling the budget delivered on the 8th of May and also about trying to quell fears about price rises under the carbon tax with the Dorothy Dix being used to outline just what payments particular areas of the population have and will continue to receive as the policy rolls along from July the 1st.
The stage is set, the roles devised and the complexion of Question Time pretty much a certainty except for the exact number of questions focused on each issue and dependent upon there being no left field questions that pretty much nobody saw coming.
The ultra-marathon of an election campaign has been run and won emphatically by a resurgent and united conservative force in Queensland politics. The relatively new LNP have swept to power in well over 80% of electorates across the state. The result was brutal leaving a predicted 77 seats gained by the LNP against a predicted 8 for the ALP (which could be reduced to 7 in a by-election) and two each for Katter’s Australia Party and Independent MP’s, a truly embarrassing state of affairs for Australia’s oldest political party. In the process, the ALP also lost a number of candidates for leader in the post-Bligh era of Labor Party politics, including Deputy Premier and Treasurer Andrew Fraser and Cameron Dick, the Minister for Education and Industrial Relations.
To top it all off the outgoing leader Anna Bligh, as is often the practise of former state and federal leaders after an electoral defeat, announced her intentions to resign from the parliament as the member for South Brisbane as soon as possible. This is essential for renewal of the Labor Party and as many commentators have also said, to remove the stench of the Bligh area by getting rid of the chief contributor and figurehead of the electoral whitewash.
It would appear from reports that Annastacia Palaszczuk the Bligh Government Minister for Transport and Multicultural Affairs and former Disability Services Minister will tomorrow be confirmed as the new leader of the ALP in the Queensland Parliament. Ms Palaszczuk will have massive responsibilities after such a devastating outcome leading a parliamentary opposition which would be considered a minor party in many parliaments around Australia and the world, coordinating a team of 8 at this stage.
Not only will Ms Palaszczuk have to manage with a team of just eight people, but the MLA for Inala will have to deal with a team that have suffered a massive psychological blow and will be low on confidence with what will most certainly be a prolonged period in opposition after 20 of the last 22 years in government in the state.
Also, after the scale of defeat that was suffered on election night Saturday, Ms Palaszcuk will lead a team of “old hands” with all marginal seat holders and a myriad of safe seat holders no longer in the parliament. This includes the outgoing Disability Services Minister Curtis Pitt, in Mulgrave and Tim Mulherin in Mackay the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and Regional Economies who even though his seat is currently in doubt, should manage to hold on.
As small oppositions go after a landslide defeat, the member for Inala would almost certainly not be leading the Australian Labor Party into an election winning situation. This could leave it to the young former minister Curtis Pitt, or the less likely, but experienced Tim Mulherin (providing he holds on in Mackay) to lead the ALP into an eventual election win, although Mr Mulherin could well have left the parliament before the ALP were able to move themselves into such an envious position.
Curtis Pitt may, after a time be in a position to lead the ALP into an election win after Palaszczuk likely loses the Labor leadership after a term or more on the opposition benches and this is a real possibility at the present time given the scale of what is required to get back into government but is not the only possibility that exists for Labor.
In all likelihood, the next leader of the ALP, because of the scale of the election win, may not yet even be a member of the parliamentary Labor Party in Queensland and could well enter the parliament at the next election in the form of a former Bligh Government Minister like Andrew Fraser or Cameron Dick or a promising new talent that the ALP identify in the time that they have to conduct the search.
There is one final option that presents itself to the ALP if they are in need of winning an election after a long period inhabiting the opposition party room and that is to embrace the “Newman Solution” of putting up a very strong candidate with leadership experience elsewhere in government or even business into a seat. Make that person leader and then they can campaign for a time before an official election campaign. Hey, it worked for the LNP didn’t it?
Either way, it is all but certain that we will not hear the words “Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk” escaping out of anyone’s mouth, nor read them in the newspaper or online the day after a state election.
As speculation continues as to just how much support former Foreign and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has in the Labor caucus, the thoughts of some turn to what major portfolios may be granted under either the Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard or perhaps Kevin Rudd.
It is increasingly likely that Kevin Rudd would not take back the Prime Ministership at the leadership spill which occurs on Monday. But it is still possible, were Rudd to pull around 40+ votes of the party room that a second later ballot could be successful a la Keating in the 1991.
Either way that will not stop me speculating just who might get some of the major portfolios vacated or made untenable in this ugly, toxic and likely terminal battle.
As already said, it seems very likely at this early stage, even before Kevin Rudd returns home to Australia that Julia Gillard will win the ALP leadership vote on Monday morning at 10am. That certainly leaves the vacated Foreign Affairs portfolio available to either a strong talent or a key factional backer or perhaps someone with experience in a similar area. Maybe all three.
I strongly believe, and have been stating on Twitter for days now, given his strong backing of the Prime Minister in the media in recent times, becoming the first to outwardly condemn the actions of Kevin Rudd, that Simon Crean will be the successful candidate for the position of Foreign Minister.
Not only do I base my views on that support, but Simon Crean is one of the most experienced members of the ALP party room, having even been one of the leaders of the party this millenium.
More importantly, the current Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts was Minister for Trade, ironically under Kevin Rudd. Trade is a very closely related portfolio to Foreign Affairs and indeed shares the same departmental home, so it wouldn’t be an unnatural step to make.
It is far from certain, with the Prime Minister calling for unity after a vote where she is expected to win, that those Ministers who spoke outwardly in support of Kevin Rudd would be dumped from their portfolios. Indeed unity would probably dictate that they were kept in those positions. However, in the unlikely event they are forced out, that would leave spots for junior backers, including parliamentary secretaries, to take their spots.
Speculation then turns to what positions would be gained by Rudd backers in the event of a successful spill now or in the future. I am not so sure there would be pardons for some of the key Gillard backers in the ministry were Rudd to become PM again.
I think Wayne Swan may be an immediate casualty along with Gillard who would return to the backbench of her own volition, though action against the former may not be a politically smart move.
Of the already announced key backers, I would not mind betting that Chris Bowen would be a candidate for Deputy Prime Minister and add to that the Treasury portfolio, mirroring the situation at the moment where Wayne Swan has both responsibilities.
There might also be some blood from some of the other portfolios, with Gillard supporters like Crean and Conroy possibly losing their responsibilities or being demoted.
Either way, Gillard or Rudd, it does not look like there would be wholesale changes as being so close to an election it would not give new ministers time to slot into roles properly in which they may not have had much background in their time in politics. Above all else, too much blood and collateral damage would not look like a party united.
It’s fun to speculate isn’t it?