As the Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd leadership spill grew from a trickle of leaks to a flood of animosity culminating in a caucus ballot, Australian politics came for a while to resemble a US-style presidential primary.
This impression was amplified by live blog coverage, photo montages of the contestants clashing head to head, op-eds replete with war-like language, and especially in Rudd’s call to the people to petition their MPs to swing their caucus votes in favour of him.
The rift between who the Labor caucus wanted as leader and who the people wanted as leader has never been more pronounced and Rudd heightened this disconnect with his call to people power in what some have satirised as the “Australian Spring”. Furthermore, Rudd and his supporters embraced the opposition’s jargonistic spectre of the “faceless men” running the party.
The idea of the “faceless men” has become a potent tool to use to describe a party that is out of touch with what the people want. The resignation of Senator Mark Arbib yesterday has been understood by many to be the “faceless scapegoat” sacrificed to heal the party.
However, perhaps an opportunity for more ambitious reform could emerge out of the wreckage of the leadership crisis. The Labor Party could introduce a primaries system to allow the public, or just card-carrying supporters, to select the party leader. Such a system would boost public engagement in the party’s direction, and mollify the fear of the “faceless men”, the concern that they are not being properly represented.
This is not a radical new step — for a while the Labor Party has been considering the merits of a primaries system in order to boost membership and engage people more in the party’s decisions. Primaries were tested in the Victorian state elections in November 2010 in the marginal seat of Kilsyth and declared a success by the party. Julia Gillard promoted the further use of this primaries system across other electorates in the lead-up to the ALP national conference last December, stating that by engaging the community “we can tap into that deeper support“.
When thinking of a primaries system, many look first to the US, as we watch with a mixture of amusement and concern at the Republican primaries under way at the moment. An Australian primary would not have to take the form of the mad, whirlwind of the US primaries — which officially run for about six months but unofficially run for more than a year longer, and cost a whopping $50 million-$100 million per candidate.
A more apt model might be seen in the recent primaries experiment in France, tested for the first time last June. Only half a month elapsed between nominations opening and closing, and the primary was then held three months later. This was seen as a way to reinvigorate a party stifled by its old “elephants”. Furthermore, rather than relying on personal attacks to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the public, the French candidates more calmly debated policy — and this policy debate was embraced by the media, which gave prime coverage to debates, in-depth interviews to all candidates. This attitude and this reception legitimised a new and entirely optional process for the Socialist Party in the lead-up to this year’s presidential election.
Over the past couple of decades and more strikingly in recent years, the media’s scrutiny of leaders’ personality traits has led to the Labor and Liberal parties going through leaders at a faster and faster pace. In the past five years both parties combined have seen six different leaders. While in this week’s leadership contest, the caucus seemed to choose Gillard’s management skills over Rudd’s public favour, more often they select the leader they assume the media and the polls will respond better to — despite what skills might be best suited to a leader.
A primaries system would accommodate for the changes to political life brought by the age of 24-hour media scrutiny and today’s public’s expectations of transparency and accountability. Today we can send Twitter messages to our leader, and yet be absent from the decision to elect him or her. A primaries system would mean that instead of the party assuming what the public wants as leader, they let the public decide. It would mean presenting a choice of candidates that present different policy nuances that would lead the party in a direction that is more aligned with what its base wants. It would mean maintaining some stability in the party with the same leader serving the full term he or she was elected by the people to do. It would mean instead of blaming “faceless men” for leadership woes, we could go back to blaming the people for the leaders they deserve.