The leadership of the Australian Labor Party has generated much political turmoil over the past three years. As detailed previously on The Typewriter, tensions between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have detracted from Labor’s ability to present a united front against the Opposition. Additionally, it has led to an insufficient focus on policy, damaging Australian democracy more broadly. Having retaken the Prime Ministership two weeks ago, Mr Rudd has proposed reforms to the selection of Labor leaders. But these reforms themselves raise cause for concern.

For Mr Rudd, the question of leadership is deeply personal. Mr Rudd’s removal in his first term of office, in favour of Ms Gillard, was unprecedented in Australian political history. Many lamented that they were denied the chance to cast judgment on the man they voted into ‘the Lodge’. Throughout Ms Gillard’s reign this remained a prevalent, albeit constitutionally dubious sentiment. Gallingly, the coup appeared to be at the behest of little-known factional heavyweights in parliaments and trade union leaders outside Parliament altogether; the so-called faceless men.

In response, Mr Rudd has sought to solidify the position of Labor leader. The proposed reforms work as follows:

  • How is a ballot for Labor leader initiated?
    • Current system: Either the Labor leader calling a spill (often on the request of a challenger) or a (rarely used) petition from 1/3rd of Labor caucus members.
    • Proposed system: Either automatically on an election loss or where there is a sitting Labor Prime Minister, by a petition from 75% of the Labor caucus.
  • Who votes on the Labor leadership?
    • Current system: Only Labor parliamentarians.
    • Proposed system: Both the Labor caucus and rank-and-file members, with a 50% weighting for each bloc’s votes.
  • Who can stand for Labor leader?
    • Current system: Any member of the Labor caucus (by convention, members in the lower house).
    • Proposed system: A member of Labor caucus endorsed by 20% of caucus.

Many have welcomed these changes. Conceivably the reforms enable greater stability in the leadership. As Mr Rudd stated, this will ‘prevent anyone just wandering in one day or one night and saying ‘OK, Sunshine, it’s over’’. This is particularly pertinent for a Labor Party that has had five leaders since 2001. Additionally, it facilitates greater grassroots engagement with a party facing a long-term decline in party membership. The divide between parliamentarians and membership was epitomised as parliamentarians stuck firm behind Ms Gillard, despite Mr Rudd’s clear electoral popularity.

But these changes are also flawed. First and most pertinently, they distort the foundations of Australia’s parliamentary system. Mr Rudd argues that ‘[t]oday, more than ever, Australians demand to know that the prime minister they elect, is the prime minister they get.’ This however misrepresents Australia’s constitution. As has been noted previously in The Typewriter, the ‘Presidentialisation’ of the political system, reflected in Mr Rudd’s comments, runs contrary to Australia’s Westminster ethos. The Prime Minister is a first-amongst-equals, elected by and answerable to their parliamentary colleagues, rather than being a figurehead with an independent personal mandate. Certainly it does matter who is Prime Minister: they have a role in shaping the vision for the party and act as a spokesperson-in-chief in the current political paradigm. But this should not come at the cost of the collegiality, collective responsibility and infusion of local views in governance, that are the hallmarks of Westminster government. It has been the cult of personality in Australian politics that has fuelled such a disproportionate focus on leadership at the expense of policy.

Second, the reforms are a heavy-handed response to a question of individual integrity and autonomy. The system itself is not the problem. Having parliamentarians decide their leader is logical; after all they are the ones who need to work with the leader on a day-to-day basis and are best positioned to judge the character and management style of leadership candidates. Rather, the issue is how parliamentarians exercise their choice. As Opposition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull, himself deposed in a leadership coup by his Coalition brethren, noted, the reforms constituted an admission ’that the Labor Party Caucus is so hopelessly dominated by trade unions and factions that it can no longer be trusted with choosing the leader’ raising ‘very real questions about the culture of the Labor Party’. In particular, the factional system compromises parliamentarians’ ability to make an independent decision.

Third, the reforms are somewhat hypocritical on Mr Rudd’s part. It is unlikely that Mr Rudd would have met the 75% threshold to cause a ballot for the leadership in the first place. More pertinently, Mr Rudd’s damaging campaign to return to the leadership has contributed to the very instability he seeks to address.

In conclusion, these reforms are not the ‘silver bullet’ that they are promised to be. If there has been any lesson learned in the past three years, it is precisely that a preoccupation with leadership is damaging to the more important question of policy. These reforms merely perpetuate the problem by further fetishizing the leadership as the centrepiece of internal deliberations. If the aim is to ensure stability in the leadership, then this requires a change in political culture: to focus on policy not polls and to allow parliamentarians to exercise genuine independent judgment rather than being pawns for factional warlords. If the desire is for greater grassroots engagement, then action should be taken to ensure meaningful dialogue and influence on policy decisions. In short, Mr Rudd would be well reminded that sometimes the simplest solutions are best.