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Democracy reigns in Rudd's participation nation


Sydney Morning Herald cover: photo of Kevin Rudd pouting slightly, headline reads 'PM takes the knife to spills'When Kevin Rudd announced an intervention into the ALP's corruption-prone NSW branch, sceptical commentators declared the proposed changes were merely cosmetic because they would not curb the power of Labor's factions. The point was well made, but cannot be directed against Rudd's more recent proposal for changing the method of electing the party's national leader. On the contrary, his plan, which would give a vote to rank-and-file members as well as MPs, is a direct challenge to factional chieftains and the system from which they derive their power.

The sceptics have their take on the leadership proposal too, of course: that it is driven by Rudd's continuing resentment of the way in which he was forced to step down as Labor leader and prime minister in 2010, and by his desire to so entrench his reclaimed leadership that he will be practically irremovable.

It is true that when reporters ask whether revenge is uppermost on his mind, Rudd's denials sound lame. But who would sound entirely plausible in responding with 'No, of course not' and 'I've got over all that'? And do his interlocutors seriously think that Rudd — or anyone in a similar position — could say anything else? The revenge question is a rhetorical ploy that momentarily makes good television but it is the cheapest of shots, barely above the level of 'Have you stopped beating your wife yet?'

Whether or not Rudd has an ulterior motive, the more important question is whether changing the method of electing the leader is desirable for the party and for democratic participation generally. The short answer to that question is that the British Labour Party's experience of a broadly similar system demonstrates that the system works well. It has done so because it is an adaptation to changes in the level of voter engagement in the political process that have been under way for a long time in Britain and other comparable democracies, including Australia.

Even in Westminster, the classic Westminster system whose outlines are instilled in politics 101 students has ceased to exist. This should not be news to those who make their living by reporting and commenting on politics, but apparently it is. When Rudd replaced Julia Gillard a fortnight ago, a spate of commentary decreed that the turn of events amounted to the triumph of a quasi-presidential style of politics, in which successful leaders rise by their popularity with voters rather than by winning and maintaining the support of parliamentary party colleagues.

This kind of analysis had a weird, just-arrived-from-Mars feel to it, for it was as though the commentators had failed to notice that so-called 'presidential' politics has been the norm for decades. Once television became the chief medium for political campaigning, that was unavoidable.

The commentariat surely understands this because its members have been agents of the change, but some of them are reluctant to relinquish what they learned in politics 101. After Gillard replaced Rudd in June 2010, an oft-heard line of argument was that voters shouldn't feel miffed that the prime minister they elected in 2007 had been deposed by his colleagues, because in a parliamentary system we don't vote for leaders. We vote for local members, you see, who then choose party leaders, one of whom will become prime minister.

Yeah, right. And everyone who enters a voting booth on election day understands perfectly well that he or she is only voting for a local representative, and they all accept what this implies: that they're not voting for a party and its leader at all. This view only has to be uttered to be seen for the nonsense that it is.

Most people don't know, and never bother to find out, who their local member is. But if they take even a passing interest in politics once every three years they can tell you who the prime minister and opposition leader are, because they think that what they are doing when they fill in a ballot paper is choosing between these two people. And the fact that they think this makes it so, regardless of the niceties of constitutional theory, and regardless, too, of all the other well-attested changes of recent decades, such as the decline in major-party membership and voter loyalties, and the proliferation of minor-party and independent candidacies.

That is why, from day one of her prime ministership, Gillard struggled against a widespread perception among voters that she had acquired the office improperly. She hadn't, of course, but that didn't diminish the perception, and when Labor lost its majority under her leadership in 2010 she thereby also lost the chance of acquiring the democratic authority that Rudd had gained in 2007.

The system Rudd is proposing would, by making it much harder to remove the party leader between elections, narrow the gap between voter perceptions of what democratic choice means and the power of parliamentary blocs to ignore or repudiate what voters think they have chosen.

His model would not make the votes of rank-and-file members and MPs equal in value, since the total branch vote and the total caucus vote would each be weighted at 50 per cent. But the requirement that a spill could not be initiated between elections without the support of 75 per cent of caucus, or unless a leader chooses to step down, would force MPs to acknowledge the prevailing sentiment in the party and the community before acting.

The change would restore to the rank and file what the factional system has taken from them: a sense that there is power and purpose in party membership. It might even encourage people to start joining the Labor Party once again — and the Liberal Party, too, if it were to adopt a similar system for choosing its leader. How could revived participation be bad for democracy?

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Kevin Rudd, Labor, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Of course participation in democracy is good but not all that glistens is really gold. Sorry to cast another point of view but it is possible this is being fuelled by Rudd's drive for power and control. And dare I say - revenge after what was done to him by Julia Gillard. As many Labor members said in his previous term, he is very controlling as a person. Not for nothing have people commented 'The ego has landed'.

Skye | 10 July 2013  

The Milliband brothers are an example of union power winning over all else and sadly for the UK, it is not exactly a resounding success. If the rank and file are voting on a leader and it takes 30 days to sort - are we without a leader for a month? Revenge is a reasonable question considering Kevin Rudd spent 3 years destabilising the leadership of Julia Gillard and showing no loyalty to the ALP. To talk of us being kinder to each other is wonderful but does have the whiff of hypocrisy.

Jane | 10 July 2013  

At the stroke of a pen, Pope Francis not only unites the Church but also tells the whole world that there is not a way -whether liberal or conservative- leading to God. Only Jesus is The Way. And although I admire his genius of authorising the sainting of his two predecessors, I cannot wonder the speediness of canonisation of Pope John Paul II and the tardiness in declaring sainthood to Pope John XXIII. The Church would be much better had the latter be declared saint as speedy as the former. And I agree with some previous comments that by seemingly making saints so easily, Pope Francis should, as a Latin saying goes, Festina Lente, if sainthood still means anything in contemporary societies.

Toan Nguyen | 10 July 2013  

And here was me thinking that I was the only person that realized we voted fore a local member, not the PM. We should vote for the local member who can best represent us, not for a dill that the party has managed to put up. I even thought of buying another house and moving so that I could vote against the person I don't want. Trouble is it is only possible to have one principal residence. Is the present Government a minority? I thought they had a majority of ONE. May be the constitution should be changed such that the incoming government must have a majority of at least five. Either that or we need to appoint (Ha. - WE) a GG with some guts that wont accept something as stupid as a government with a majority of ONE and an agreement from the independents that they wont block supply. I am not a political animal. to my mind we have gone through a period of mediocre government based on compromise to get modified policy accepted.

Townsville Fred | 10 July 2013  

The Westminster system of Government has very little to do with democracy in the first place. The Westminster system has been designed to ensure that King or Queen remain forever unchallenged. It was important for the royalists to design a political system which ensured continuous division amongst elected members of Parliament. The Westminster system ensures that the elected members must fight each other instead working for the good of a the country. A divided parliament ensured the survival of the royals to this day.

Beat Odermatt | 10 July 2013  

One important feature of the Westminster system is the separation of the elected members from the Public Service who are there to advise the ministry without fear or favour. They should not be on contract and be able to be sacked by politicians without due process. Bob Carr points out that potential political leaders should go through a process of training and not go into ministry without preparation.

John ozanne | 10 July 2013  

Ray Cassin wants us to follow down the path of dumbed-down celebrity-everything entertainment that the media have provided us with recently. So instead of choosing the best system we can create, we should accept a popularity contest between two candidates as our basis of government. I disagree - that would leave us with a once in a three year chance to influence government. The new technologies mean that we can be much more involved with our local representatives - we should be working towards making a new participatory Westminster model function, rather than throwing in the towel.

russell | 10 July 2013  

The four posts to date (5:40pm Wednesday) are surely beside the point. Ray is asking whether the proposed system is an improvement or not. In my opinion, it's unlikely to achieve anything worthwhile because the caucus, after caucusing, will always be able to outvote as a block the members who will vote individually. This already happens in the preselection process where the public office selection committee caucuses and out-votes, whenever it wants to, the local members. A much better reform would be to start at the bottom and make every preselection, lower house and upper house, a matter for a vote by the relevant members with NO involvement at all by the public office selections committee. That reform would really emasculate the faction leaders and make them responsive to the membership rather than manipulators of the membership.

Ginger Meggs | 10 July 2013  

And would this change have the effect of making more people actually interested in politics to the extent that they would join a party if they had some say in choosing the leader?

Jorie | 12 July 2013  

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