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Sep 12, 2013

A leadership ballot would leave Labor 'helpless' ... so what?

Concerns about a party ballot for the Labor leadership pander to the media's inability to cope with the unusual in politics. This is exactly what Labor needs right now.


The leadership rules bequeathed to Labor are a “farce” that leave Labor “helpless” and “a laughing stock” while the Coalition “gets away with murder”, according to Stephen Conroy.

One would hesitate to call revoking Steve Brack’s trade post gig “murder”, and since the Coalition hasn’t done much else since being elected, it’s not fully clear to what Conroy is referring to. If it’s about Tony Abbott’s capacity to communicate more effectively than Labor, well he’s been getting away with murder since December 2009.

Conroy has plenty of brains and more political mongrel than most of his colleagues. But, unsurprisingly, he’s less than enamoured with any reforms to the Labor Party’s internal decision-making that might dilute his power — particularly selecting candidates via primaries, which he views as the path to the Americanisation of politics, and selecting the leader by a party ballot, an idea even more odious to Conroy because it came from the despised Kevin Rudd.

The Brits take a different view of leadership contests. After the 2010 election, once Gordon Brown couldn’t form government and stood aside, the Labour Party’s election process took a fortnight short of five months to produce Ed Milliband. There were five candidates who made the ballot paper and four televised debates.

Under Ed Milliband, UK Labour currently comfortably leads the Conservatives in all opinion polls, and in some outpolls the combined vote of the Tories and the Liberal-Democrats.

The 2010 race was, admittedly, a little longer than usual. When John Smith died suddenly in May 1994, it took just over two months for Tony Blair to emerge as the winner. The Tories don’t take quite as long: it took them six weeks to replace John Major after the election in 1997. In 2001, having been beaten by Blair, they settled on the two candidates to go forward to a vote of members — the Tories have a party ballot as well now — relatively quickly, but the party ballot took another two months. In 2005, it took two months for David Cameron to emerge, and that was a full eight months after Blair had defeated Michael Howard.

The Brits have a longer election cycle, of course — five years to our three — but it’s clear having a party ballot leadership process for a period of many weeks or even months is unrelated to electoral performance: the systems have produced winners like Blair and Cameron, and losers like Iain Duncan Smith.

So what happens to Labor here if it has a party ballot that takes a few weeks? Who will lead the party? Who will assign shadow ministries? Well, who cares? The voters have just elected a new government. They don’t care about the opposition and won’t for some time. The only people who care are political journalists, who prefer to function in a well-ordered environment in which it’s clear what everyone’s roles are — any departure from the norm and they start invoking the “chaos” narrative.

That’s undoubtedly the fear of opponents of a party ballot for the leadership, that the process will be portrayed by the media as “divisive” and “chaotic” because something unusual is happening.

There’s two problems with this: firstly, any leadership deal hammered out behind closed doors will be portrayed as “faceless men” and business as usual by the media anyway; secondly, Labor has for too long allowed itself to be convinced that it’s necessary to sacrifice party democracy, public policy debate and grassroots participation in the name of pandering to the media’s narrative of unity. The result has been an atrophying of communication skills and the party’s ability to sell policy in a contested environment, and the growing perception Labor stands for nothing. If voters never see you arguing passionately over policy, they’re much more likely to decide that you don’t really have much interest in policy at all.

So, indeed, a party ballot election would take time, and the media would portray it as “chaos”, but so what? Six months from now there’ll be a leader with the support of their whole party and the leadership ballot will be a matter for the history books. Voters nearly installed Abbott as prime minister in 2010 barely eight months after his party tore itself apart. What happens on the Labor side in the next three months, even if there’s a double dissolution election next year, will be of no moment to voters except that, even if they’re antipathetic to Labor, they will have seen candidates pitching their values, their beliefs and their policies to members.

After the circus of the last few years, Labor needs more of that, not less.



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24 thoughts on “A leadership ballot would leave Labor ‘helpless’ … so what?

  1. Denis Goodwin

    Spot on Bernard

  2. klewso

    Stephen Conroy, whose “brains” gave us Steve “Sloppy” Fielding, lecturing on “what needs to be done”?
    Nuff said?

  3. Andybob

    Agree with this Bernard. If the Labor party had a genuine internal debate about policy and leadership they might be less disposed to abandon either on a whim.

  4. drmick

    Thats bullshit Bernard. Continual undermining of the leader by a well sourced gutless waste of space allowed to press gallery, and the rest of the fleas, to treat the prime minister, and everything she did or said, with absolute contempt. A perfect example; you and your friends missing the misogyny speech because you were following the slipper sideshow. Disloyalty on that scale had never been aired in the labour party till that time & you trash helped sell it non stop. piss poor to be pontificating now knowing the gutless wonder is still in the game and obviously ready to do it again; with your help.

  5. David Coles

    Absolutely Bernard. The move for greater membership involvement is critical to the future of the ALP and, for me, will largely determine whether the party ever receives my support again.

    That said, I well understand why right wing factional bosses see it as a threat.

  6. beachcomber

    Exactly. Conroy has 2 strong reasons to bag democracy within the ALP.
    Firstly, his mate Shorten would not win a ballot of all ALP members.
    And secondly, Conroy’s power relies on him having the numbers to make deals. Anything that empowers the members will erode his influence.
    Back room deals knocked off Rudd the first time. Then they knocked off Gillard. They knocked off Iemma, then they knocked off Rees.
    And the Labor vote keeps getting smaller, in large part because people like Conroy and Shorten believe that the ALP is their personal play thing.

  7. klewso

    Democracy is all very well, in it’s right place.

  8. Scott Grant

    Convention gives us a caretaker prime minister while waiting for an election. If a figurehead is necessary, why not have a caretaker leader?

    I have little doubt Albo would win if there is a vote outside of the caucus. I used to think Bill had promise, particularly back when he was a union leader. But he seems to have morphed into just another robot politician whose every word on any topic is completely predictable.

  9. Daniel Duvois

    A free pass to Shorten for the leadership is a free pass to disaster. He cannot be trusted, carries too much baggage and the media, those vultures will have a real party tearing him and the factions faceless men to pieces.
    Enough is enough, time for the rank and file to have their say, to h-ll with the behind closed doors deals. Albanese/Plibersek ticket will go through to the next election whenever it is. They dont have baggage, they are open books and formidable politicians

  10. jmendelssohn

    There can’t be an Albanese/Plibersek ticket as they are both on the left and both in adjoining Sydney electorates. However their quality as candidates is why both those electorates showed a swing to Labor.
    If the Labor party wants to ever hold office again, and not vanish up its own fundament, then it will stay with Rudd’s sensible reform and involve the wider membership in both the election of the leader and the development of policy.
    In the long-term I think Plibersek would make a brilliant Prime Minister but it would be tactical folly for her to go for it right now.

  11. tonysee

    @ jmendelssohn

    Saw Plibersek the other night on Q&A and thought she fronted up to a pretty hostile panel at a time when she knew there’d be very little upside for her or Labor and I thought she handled herself very well. She didn’t take a backward step to either Brandis, Kroger OR Richardson and often put them in their place.

    In general Labor needs to draw a line under the past and a ‘lively’ process of choosing a leader might help. At the end, assuming it is credible, the new leader will potentially have more authority than previous leaders and that could be a basis of a decent differentiation from both the past and the Coalition.

    In the meantime, pressure must be brought to bear on KRudd to bugger off. He agree with Julia that whoever lost should move on. He’s now lost too. Move on.

  12. Rubio Diego

    Thank you Bernard for a great article. I for one, am very happy for party members to have an equal say in electing the new leader. Unfortunately many of your colleagues haven’t got over using the Labor Party as their preferred blood sport!

  13. cyberfysh


    I don’t agree that KR should go. Anna Bligh did after the Qld election wipeout, and it was a very unpopular move, bringing on a by-election so soon.

  14. Carbon Footprint

    Be could to hear both Shorten and Albanese get up there in front of members and explain exactly what their leadership will stand for. Come to think of it would be good to have Conroy get up and explain to members what he meant by his comments and why he values his own party members so poorly.

  15. Pat Wargent

    Is it true that the Governor General is Bill Shortens Mother-in-law?

  16. Mark from Melbourne

    You keep applauding Abbotts communication skills as something people should aspire to. As far as I can tell he was on a race to the bottom, treating everyone to simple, negative slogans or scare tactics – and yes it worked but is it really what we want to encourage?

  17. Jan Dobson

    Well expressed. Whether true or not, Labor needs to shake up the “factional frenzy” view of its management structure that so many hold.
    Only concern is that it turns into a popularity contest rather than a competency evaluation.

  18. David Hand

    Labor needs to rediscover its grass roots urgently. Delegating key decisions to professional leaders tends to lead to better, more informed decisions and our parliament is a good example.

    But if your organisational structures and culture puts drongos and talentless dealmakers into those positions, the organisation ceases to be effective.

    I say Labor should throw open the doors to grass roots democracy and it will most likely rediscover its voter base.

  19. CML

    Good article, Bernard. I agree the Labor party should adopt the system of electing a leader, put forward by Kevin Rudd and agreed to by the caucus. It seems to have been very successful in the UK – so no reason the sky should fall in here.
    I may be wrong, but my recollection of the UK Labour leadership process is that the then leader, Gordon Brown, was left in that position until the party chose Ed Milliband. Don’t see how they could, or why they should, remove Rudd until the vote is complete.
    And for all you Rudd haters out there – get over yourselves! Petty, vindictive, childish behaviour, to say the least.

  20. AR

    The regular ALP conference stoushes were the sign of a passionate, engaged and vigorous party. Possibly my poor memory for detail but it seems the loss of principle & purpose began with the stage managed conferences, the most recent being the obscenity of the undecision on gay marriage.

  21. klewso

    “They’re creepy and they’re kooky,
    Self-serving, and spooky,
    They’re all-together sooky
    The far Right ALP…..”

  22. klewso

    … sorry, wrong number.

  23. drmick

    Klewso- lets hope by removing lazarus, the rest of the corpse can survive. Apparently he wants a third go at it. By any decent measure he is spoiled soiled goods, limping and smelly.


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