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Lessons for Labor from across the Tasman

  • 18 September 2013

Last weekend the Australian Labor Party embarked on its month-long process towards a grassroots election of a leader to replace Kevin Rudd. At the same time, the New Zealand Labour Party ended its long and sometimes brutal election of a new leader, with Sunday's naming of Auckland MP David Cunliffe. The lesson from across the Tasman is that a grassroots election of a Labour leader can broaden the base of those with a say in the party's destiny, and steer it back towards a more traditional social democratic stance.

This is particularly significant in New Zealand, the former cradle of the welfare state which the OECD charts as the member country with the fastest growing level of inequality. Australia, as we're aware, is not far behind, with its widening gap between rich and poor.

His stance on social inclusion appears to be the reason Cunliffe won the support of party rank-and-file and union affiliates, who carried the numbers he needed. Like Australia's Kevin Rudd, he was widely disliked in the Labour caucus. He beat two other candidates to the post after a two-week 'primary' in which the three candidates toured the country's key Labour strongholds enthusing party faithful with presidential-style speeches worthy of the American hustings. This method has worked in bringing out the differences in what each candidate has to offer.

Cunliffe's victory is a slap in the face for the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) group, which gained traction after the 2011 general election when defeated Labour leader Phil Goff stepped down in favour of unknown political novice David Shearer, who succeeded former prime minister Helen Clark as the MP for the electorate of Mt Albert.

Historian and political commentator Chris Trotter says in his column 'From the Left' that personal motives were behind the ABC's promotion of deputy leader Grant Robertson over Cunliffe, who was regarded as a threat to their position in the caucus, and political advancement in general.

Some in the party were concerned that Robertson's sexuality could become the subject of political barbs and wondered aloud whether the country was ready for a gay PM. One wonders whether Australia's Labor campaign might take an unexpected nasty turn once ideological differences are brought to the fore.

Trotter says in his commentary that Cunliffe's supporters were keenly aware that he would require the Opposition to 'adopt a more unequivocally social-democratic ideological stance'. Yet Cunliffe opponents have labelled a return to the party's constitution