‘It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first’. Ronald Reagan
This week we’ve learned that the profession of politics may be ancient, but its capacity to shock and confound is anything but timeworn.
If the election of an out and out socialist to the leadership of a post-Tony Blair British Labour Party wasn’t surprising enough, this week we’ve seen the Liberal Party of Australia join the Australian Labor Party in making the extraordinary decision to depose a first-term Prime Minister.
The event bore an uncanny resemblance to Julia Gillard’s knifing of Kevin Rudd on that winter’s night in June 2010. The public found out there were moves to unseat the leader just after 3.30 on Monday afternoon and some six hours later Australia had its 29th Prime Minister – its fifth in as many years.
When Tony Abbott finally fronted the media briefly around 6pm on Monday night to respond to Malcolm Turnbull’s challenge, he was criticised by commentators for not putting forward his leadership credentials. He stated (repeatedly) “we are not the Labor Party” – referring to Labor’s propensity to change leaders at the first whiff of a poor poll.
He was right to say this. It was a major point of differentiation between the parties. The fact the Federal Liberal Party had never removed a sitting Prime Minister set them on a higher ground and a more mature footing and look less like a faction-ridden, poll-driven rabble.
But it seems the so-called “Labor disease” has now infected the other side of politics and Australian politics and the voters are the worse for it.
Somewhat ironically, having set the precedent, Labor has now taken preventative steps to make it more difficult for the midnight leadership coups to take place by introducing reforms to the way their leaders are elected and unelected.
In order to unseat their Prime Minister, 75 per cent of the Labor caucus must vote for a no confidence motion (60 per cent for an Opposition Leader). With a fairly even split between the left and right factions in the Party room, it would therefore have to be close to consensus. Should that happen, nominations then open for the leadership. If it’s contested then the new rules kick in again; that is, a vote of the full rank and file membership and the MPs, split 50/50. How effective this is as a deterrent will be tested over the next few months. If polling repeatedly confirms the switch to Malcolm Turnbull was the right decision for the Government, the pressure will be on Bill Shorten and Labor.
A section of the Australian Labor Party would like to see the election of the leader extended to a full one member one vote system like the British Labour Party. This, they argue, is a true expression of a democratic, grass roots party. While this may be correct, given what we know about the membership of the ALP and what we’ve seen happen with UK Labour electing Jeremy Corbyn, the probable outcome may not serve the Party well. The leader may be popular with the members, but how electable that person might be to the broader community is another question.
Under these rules, Labor’s most iconic Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam would probably not have defeated the left wing Jim Cairns, and it’s most successful Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, might not have defeated Bill Hayden. These are issues the Labor Party should carefully consider before taking reform any further.
As for the Liberal Party, after the events of this week, there will undoubtedly be members calling for the kind of reform Labor has introduced. Even the British Conservative Party gives its 200,000 odd members the final say in deciding who the leader will be.
So there are many questions coming out of the two unexpected political events of this week but one thing is certain, somewhere in between the two leadership contests lies a better version of party democracy
1. Chairman Address, John Wells
2. Bridging the Global Divide, Christine Schulte
3. The UK Summer of Love, Julie Sibraa
4. An old profession learns some new tricks, Julie Sibraa
5. Circling the Wagons, Robert Masters
6. Obama's foreign policy scorecard, Isabelle Walker
7. Truth, honesty and the forgotten stakeholder, Alexandra Mayhew
8. Internal communication, Benjamin Haslem
9. How to avoid anti-social communication disorder, Maddison Richards
10. Is social media stifling political debate? Benjamin Haslem
11. Lifestyle Solutions helps kids belong, Julia Sibraa
12. Cult of celebrity - Putting our children at risk, Christine Schulte
13. The laws of success: sport, politics and businesses, Geoffrey MacDermott