In my youth, I was enthusiastic about the idea of taking parliamentary leadership out the hands of parliamentarians. As president of the Young Liberals in Queensland, I proposed – unsuccessfully – to have a series of “primaries” to elect the parliamentary leader.
It was at a time when the Liberal Party was in crisis. Alexander Downer was suffering the death of a thousand cuts. The Western Australian division of the Party had gone rogue on land rights. The New South Wales Right had gone crazy in a more general sense. The Queensland Division was being the Queensland Division. And the murine John Howard, having conspired to kill off John Hewson, was waiting in the wings for the Party to return to him.
As it turned out, Howard was exactly what the Liberal Party needed, but in late 1994, the Liberal Party was on track to lose again. The last time it had selected an election-winning leader was in 1975. The last time it had won a federal election was in 1980.
My point is that this sort of proposal – election of a parliamentary leader by people outside parliament – gains currency when a party is in crisis. It is a solution proposed without really looking at the problem. It’s what Yes Prime Minister described as politicians’ logic:
That message runs deep in Kevin Rudd’s current project.
In the end, a political party (not just the Prime Minister) will answer to the people for its decisions. The Labor Party was set to be trounced, not least because it refused to do what the people wanted: return Kevin Rudd. The Labor Party, responding to the apparent wishes of the people, restored Rudd and is drawing a massive benefit from having done so. They will certainly perform much better at the election as a result of the change in leadership. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they might even win, although I think that is unlikely.
Kevin Rudd’s restoration is a plain demonstration that participants in the political process have the information necessary to respond to what the public wants and the capacity to respond. The proposal to tie up the ALP leadership in government and replace the power of the people’s elected representatives to determine who should be the Prime Minister with an internal Labor Party organisational process is a solution looking for a problem.
It is also anti-democratic, to the point of being immoral.
Why is it that the choice of Prime Minister should be reposed in the very few who join a political party? Those people have no responsibility to anyone. They are certainly not representative of the broader community. They cannot be. The point of a political party, and its attraction to those who join it, is to agitate for wider acceptance of policies not generally or widely accepted.
One of Kevin Rudd’s express hopes is that his proposal will broaden the base of the Labor Party, and so it might, but that is a benefit bestowed upon the Labor Party at the expense of the electorate at large, especially all those in the electorate who could never conscientiously join the Labor Party, but might prefer a Labor Government to a Liberal Government.
Unless you’re going to open up the leadership of the Party to the whole electorate, the best way to ensure that you have a democratically responsible leader is to leave the leadership decision to those democratically elected.
I conclude by returning to my observation that Mr Rudd’s proposal is a solution looking for a problem. There is a serious problem with the Labor Party at the moment, but it has nothing to do with the leader. It has everything to do with history. The Labor Party was set up to achieve a set of circumstances which now largely exist. Most workers have good conditions. Most have a pretty good work-life balance (and most who don’t would not vote Labor).
This lack of purpose is reflected in the shallowness of its parliamentary gene pool. Labor’s parliamentary ranks are awash with apparatchiks from the unions and from the Party. It’s difficult to imagine who else would join the Labor Party at the moment.
The Labor Party doesn’t need new mechanisms as much as it needs a new project.