Labor’s Queensland branch has become the latest to reform its procedure for choosing party leaders, after last week’s state conference ratified a move to grant a share of the vote to the party membership.
With Labor’s recently acquired enthusiasm for democratising its leadership elections, Australia has emerged as a late arrival to a trend that has been playing out in Western democracies over several decades.
Selection of parliamentary leaders and presidential election candidates has long been a matter for the top echelon of party hierarchies, which in different national contexts gave rise to metaphors invoking smoke-filled rooms and faceless men. That began to change from the 1970s, as parties throughout the Western world confronted electorates that were losing enthusiasm for engagement in party affairs through the traditional avenues of membership and activism during election campaigns.
The reform bug has usually struck when a party faced circumstances very much like those of the ALP at present, with poor electoral performance prompting a determination to signal a clear break from the past. In Britain, the Conservative Party’s present method of choosing its leader, in which the parliamentary party whittles the field down to two and then leaves the matter in the hands of the membership, was the fruit of the Major government’s devastating defeat in 1997. Labour similarly enhanced the power of party members after its demoralising fourth successive defeat in 1992. Now back in opposition, it has recently extended the favour from party members to registered supporters.
Elsewhere among the dominions, Canada’s Conservative and Liberal parties opened up their leadership elections after their respective catastrophes of 1993 and 2011, while two heavy defeats inspired New Zealand’s Labour Party to hold its first direct leadership election last year.
Novel though last year’s contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese may have seemed from an Australian perspective, the real surprise is that nothing like it had happened sooner. The concerns of certain internal critics of the process having proved unfounded, a majority of state branches have since followed suit.
The Queensland branch, however, has decided to go about things a little differently. As elsewhere, parliamentarians and the party membership are to be given an equal say, but a third wheel has been attached in the shape of a direct vote for affiliated unions, so that each of the three components will contribute a third of the overall result. A resolution to junk the model in favour of the conventional 50-50 approach was voted down by a divided state conference last Saturday, with a newly ascendant Left winning the day over the main unions of the Right.
“The infusion of new members leaves short odds on the leadership question being revisited …”
No doubt the advocates of the proposal do not imagine they are doing anything too radical, given that Britain’s Labour Party reserved a specific share of the vote for the union movement until the reforms passed earlier this year, and the New Zealand party continues to do so.
However, the Queensland model is more conducive than either to the influence of union heavyweights. Whereas the British party grants equal voting rights to party members, registered supporters and union members who opt to pay a political levy as part of their dues, the Queensland model leaves the union movement’s share of the vote in the hands of union delegates to state conference. In this it reflects the New Zealand model, except that the union component of the vote amounts to a full third, compared with the New Zealand party’s 20%.
Given that much of the merit in reforming the process lies in signalling to voters that the faceless heavies who brought down Kevin Rudd have had their wings clipped, this may not have been the smartest move. Certainly it has handed a rhetorical weapon to the Newman government, and indeed to the scarcely less hostile Courier-Mail. State political reporter Steven Wardill wrote on Saturday that the system would ensure the demise of any leaders or aspirants other than “trade union toadies”, while columnist Des Houghton rated the empowerment of a union movement burdened by corruption claims as “political poison”.
Furthermore, the circumstances of the next election are such that the manner in which the leader is selected will have an unusually strong claim on the attention voters. While current Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk is performing respectably in opinion polls, the fact remains that she was rarely rated among the contenders to succeed Anna Bligh when defeat loomed at the March 2012 election. Those who were, notably Cameron Dick and Andrew Fraser, did not feature among the seven members who were able to retain their seats in the calamity that followed.
With the pendulum sure to swing forcefully back to Labor, and Cameron Dick in particular assuredly on his way back to Parliament, the infusion of new members leaves short odds on the leadership question being revisited not long afterwards. In this context, there is little doubt that the manner in which the party has chosen to handle the matter will play in the government’s favour during the campaign, even if its impact doesn’t reach the apocalyptic dimensions claimed for it by elements of the media.