Labor Party history would look very different under the leadership ballot rules proposed by Kevin Rudd. No last-minute switch to Bob Hawke. No dumping of Hawke for Keating. No Rudd-Gillard defeat of Kim Beazley. No Gillard defeat of Kevin Rudd. No unsuccessful Rudd challenge to Gillard. No Rudd defeat of Gillard.

At some point in the future, Labor may find itself led by someone whose leadership is no longer tenable, but who won’t take the hint, or heed the tap on the shoulder, to resign. At that point, Rudd’s reforms would suddenly look like a potentially disastrous obstacle. They would also give the Coalition comfort that it will know exactly what it will be up against for a whole parliamentary term.

On the other hand, the reforms also shield future leaders against what Gillard did to Rudd and Rudd did to Gillard.

It’s not a bad trade-off, one that probably delivers a net benefit given the viral-like spread of a willingness to decapitate leaders.

When you add in the role of the party membership in electing a leader, and its potential to increase the attractiveness of making the effort to belong to the party, it’s a significant reform. Labor is dying as a mass-membership party. Getting a vote in electing the party leader might not reverse that, but if it doesn’t then it’s unlikely too many other things would manage it. And for all the talk about union tactics that supposedly influenced Ed Miliband’s election as UK Labour leader in 2010, Tony Blair’s successful campaign in UK Labour’s 1994 leadership election gave him a flying start and extensive media coverage as opposition leader. Similarly in Australia, Labor’s leadership contests will become de facto elections that attract intense coverage.

“The opposition’s line is that this is further evidence Labor is only capable of navel-gazing.”

The announcement, which is likely to be endorsed by caucus, again demonstrates how unencumbered Rudd is compared to his predecessor, with a free hand to undertake party reform like this (and returning the power to select the frontbench to caucus) — as well as intervening in NSW. Julia Gillard could never have done the former and would have struggled to do the latter given the nature of her party support and its fragility.

Like the NSW intervention, the immediate target of the reforms is the electorate, rather than the party. Rudd the Second is characterised by efforts to differentiate himself from pretty much everyone — from Tony Abbott, from Julia Gillard, from his own previous prime ministership, and from the ALP itself. This is an ostentatious campaign against factional powerbrokers and the behind-the-scenes influence of faceless men, designed to convince voters that the dark period in public life that began in June 2010, characterised by disliked party leaders, a hung Parliament, endless aggression and negativity and backroom operators, is now over.

The opposition’s line is that this is further evidence Labor is only capable of navel-gazing. That may indeed be how voters react: here is Kevin Rudd, the bloke who spent three years undermining Julia Gillard, laying down rules about how to clean up Labor’s leadership process. But the impression at least for the moment is that the Coalition is unsure how to address Rudd’s new strategy which is not to take the fight up to Abbott, but to play a different game entirely, in which Rudd masquerades as a leader above the pettiness and grubbiness that has marked the last three years.

Abbott has to do all over again what he did to Rudd the first time, in early 2010, when his relentless aggression brought Rudd rapidly down to earth from the stratospheric heights he’d occupied against Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. But this time it’s Abbott carrying the baggage, not Rudd. The odds still favour Abbott to win the election, but now he’s going to have to work for it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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