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.
Today it became clear that Jeff Lawrence, the boss of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) would be leaving the post in the near future. Some say Mr Lawrence leaves under duress, being forced out after losing the confidence of senior union officials in recent times, for being an ineffective communicator particularly when it comes to media. The ACTU boss on the other hand says that he was certainly not forced out of the position, reportedly last Friday and instead could simply not complete another 3 years in the job as he approached 60 years of age.
Going by experience it is almost certain that the former is true, the head union official was likely pushed out by those in the union movement unhappy with the way he has performed in the role since assuming the position. It seems as though the coup has been even more seamless than those in the ALP that have highly involved the union movement in recent years.
The ACTU Secretary, by any objective or subjective analysis has been a very poor performer in the position since taking the reigns. His media presence has at times been so non-existent as to foment questions as to his whereabouts, well not really, but you get the picture. This media spotlight has consequently been grabbed by other media hungry union bosses, including such well-known men who now have a face like Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union and Dave Oliver of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.
In a cruel twist one of the names touted to take over the position of ACTU Secretary is Dave Oliver, whose media profile has sky-rocketed in the past 12 months in particular, gaining regular access to the ear of Julia Gillard as the Prime Minister attempts to work through the manufacturing woes which have escalated since around the time of the GFC.
But it is not only the lack of media presence that Mr Lawrence brought to the role. The ACTU boss is very poor at delivery of message and was not even effective at displaying feigned anger, even at issues which usually provoke animated debate with the union movement, like labour market deregulation.
Since the “Your Rights at Work” Campaign too, very few people would be able to associate Jeff Lawrence with any particular high-profile public relations campaign on any workplace related issue, no matter how hard they tried.
Predictably, on announcing his departure as a union boss, Mr Lawrence took the opportunity to have an ineffective prod that came across almost as a pat at the business community who are calling for some flexibility in the workplace.
The union movement, still obviously cocky from their very effective campaign against the Howard Government WorkChoices legislation, which in large part led to its downfall, think that any tinkering with the Gillard Government’s “Fair Work” laws equates to a wholesale return to WorkChoices, so the ACTU Secretary obviously could not resist temptation.
A return to WorkChoices is never going to happen, the collective pants of the Coalition are scared off permanently save for a desire for some meagre flexibility changes which would not even qualify as the ugly cousin of that divisive thing called WorkChoices. But hey, what do the unions have to talk about which scares people en masse if they don’t have something which actually does like WorkChoices? Not very much.