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.