by Eric Chan
History is the consensus that only comes with the application of time to competing narratives. More accurately, there is an inverse relationship between time and contention, such that as time (along the x-axis) passes, contention (on the y-axis) falls. The asymptote at y ≥ 0, which the function approaches but never reaches, can practically be defined as the historical consensus. Ergo, it is much too early to tell what Kevin Rudd’s lasting legacy – if any – will be. Subject, as it is, to convenient attempts at revisionism that victorious Governments tend to do at the expense of the vanquished, y is a very big number indeed.
That being said, it is neither brazen nor imprudent to make the claim that Kevin Rudd’s reforms of the Australian Labor Party were likely his most significant contribution, not just to that party, but to the party system as a whole and our democracy in general. Why? Well, history tells us so.
The substance and genesis of the reforms can be stated in brief. Rudd, freshly resurrected to the Labor leadership, proposed that rank-and-file members would participate in future leadership elections, and the result of that vote would be weighted equally with the vote of the Caucus. The victor would enjoy greater security of tenure, with a petition signed by 75% of the parliamentary party being made precedent to a spill of the leadership while in government; and in the wilderness of opposition, that threshold would fall to 60%.
The reforms were carried, subject to some minor politicking over that latter figure, and were used for the first time in the recent election of Bill Shorten as Leader of the Opposition, in which some 30,000 ALP members participated.
Beyond the significant internal ramifications of these reforms – inter alia, on the leader’s legitimacy and security; and the size and engagement of the membership – their significance on our democracy simply defies understatement.
Despite the tendency in recent years towards presidentialisation, our system is still, in practical terms, one where the Head of Government is appointed on the basis of their leadership of the party commanding a majority in the lower House of the Federal Parliament. By significantly expanding the selectorate choosing that individual, the Rudd reforms make inroads into the canons of our Westminster system denying, for better or worse, popular election of the Prime Minister.
While the Australian Democrats gave members complete power to elect the leader, that poll could never determine who led the country – the Democrats, proficient as they arguably were in keeping the bastards honest, were never in any position to assume the mantle of bastardy themselves, and to provide a Prime Minister. With this in mind, in the Australian context the reforms are novel. However, viewed amongst comparable liberal democracies, Rudd’s reforms can be seen as forming part of a trend, in the latter part of the 20th century, towards intra-party democratisation.
In the United Kingdom, both the Conservative and Labour Parties allow members some formal role in electing their leaders: following reforms introduced in 1998, the Conservatives have the membership choose between two candidates selected by the parliamentary party; and the Labour Party’s ‘electoral college’ model, adopted in 1981, additionally gives unions a say in equal proportion to the membership and parliamentary party. The Tories’ junior partner in coalition, the Liberal Democrats, entrust the membership fully to select the leader, and has done so since its formation in 1988 (though this can be traced back even further, both of its constituent parties, the Liberals and the SDP, having adopted this mechanism at the time of the 1988 merger).
Similarly, all parties in Canada allow the membership some determinative input, and most have done so since before the turn of the century. In Ireland, democratisation of the leadership ballot has occurred (with the glaring exception of the until recently predominant Fianna Fáil), though there this is a relatively more recent phenomenon.
Invariably, the international experience shows that the explanation of such reforms is based on the tenets of openness and democracy, and the need and desirability of transferring power from the party elites to the party faithful. Rudd’s rhetoric – that the reforms were to ‘give more power to everyday members of the Labor Party’ and to wrest it from the ‘hands of the factional few’ – could well have been lifted from politicians long-since retired.
Invariable also is the backdrop of growing partisan disalignment and inexorably declining membership numbers, giving impetus to internal revitalisation. In this respect, the Rudd reforms are also typical: the Labor Party’s membership figures could most charitably be described as stagnant – the 44,000-strong membership (to whom ballots were sent) is similar in size to that of the ALP of the late-1960s, and, even without adjusting for population growth, represents a retreat from gains made in the ensuing decade. Comparisons with historical figures, in the hundreds of thousands, are unnecessary to prove the point. At least in these respects, Rudd’s reforms bear similarities with reforms elsewhere.
Perhaps more intriguing is where they differ. Research by Canadian academics Cross and Blais shows that every party in the three jurisdictions mentioned above (16 in total), bar just one, democratised while in opposition – reforms have generally been undertaken following the loss of government, or on the back of poorer than expected results.
It is an interesting deviation, then, that Rudd put forwards his reforms not in any post-poll soul-searching, but when the ALP was still in government and in the lead-up to a general election. Of course, hindsight shows that defeat awaited the Labor Party, but at the relevant time its utter annihilation had not yet eventuated. Further, victory appeared slightly less impossible in the wake of Rudd’s resurrection than was the case under Julia Gillard.
Beyond simply saying the reforms were introduced despite these circumstances, arguably they were introduced because of them, and because of Rudd’s own political experience; the empowerment of the grassroots was not the reluctant act of an electorally battered party elite, but rather a conscious attempt to tap into the populism that delivered the 2007 election to Kevin07 and the ALP.
In discussing Rudd’s recent career at the apex of Australian politics, that his popularity lay in the public and not the party is almost axiomatic – the timing of the reforms are explicable as an appeal to that wider electorate, at the expense of the factional warlords whose machinations deprived Rudd of the Prime Ministership. Revenge against the latter cannot be ruled out as a motivating factor. These contemplations were as relevant at the time of the 2011 Party Conference, where Rudd (then Foreign Minister) supposedly first mooted the reforms.
For the ALP, further democratisation is almost a certainty, with both Shorten and Anthony Albanese, his rival for the leadership, pledging to reform the party internally, based at first instance on the 2010 Review authored by Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr.
As for the Coalition, the international experience suggests that, sooner or later, democratisation will become irresistible: the strong ‘contagion’ effect of reform can be seen in the UK, Canada and Ireland.
While the Coalition is, for now, sceptical and seeks to challenge Shorten’s legitimacy (incidentally, with arguments holding less water than a perforated bladder), the onus will eventually shift to them, to explain why they have failed to followed suit. Pressure will mount from the public at large, which appears to have responded positively (if at all) to the ALP reforms, and also from elements within the Coalition parties looking to neutralise the ALP’s electoral advantage. An election defeat might well be needed, but eventually it will happen. Broader public participation in selecting party leaders (and by extension the Prime Minister) will become a way of doing Australian politics, and Rudd’s democratisation of the ALP leadership will prove to be not just ‘the most significant reform to the Australian Labor Party in recent history,’ as he put it, but the most significant recent reform to our democracy as a