The last three years haven’t been great for Australia’s political reputation around the world. Despite an economy that’s the envy of most, and our ascension to a seat on the Security Council in the United Nations, we’ve developed a worrying habit of knifing our elected leaders. As Nick Bryant, BBC’s former Australia correspondent, so neatly encapsulated after March’s failed Labor Leadership Spill, we’ve become the “coup capital” of the world. It’s seemingly with this issue in mind, amongst others, that recently re-installed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has proposed reforms to open up election of the Labor leadership to members of party.
Up until now, at the state and federal level, in the Liberal Party and more prominently in the Labor Party, parliamentary representatives have consistently voted out their leaders (often correlating with downswings in opinion polls). Having spoken to many around the world who observe Australia’s politics, it serves as a sharp contrast to their own political experiences. Looking across three similar democracies, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, there is much we can learn about how to achieve greater stability in the leadership of our major parties.
By design the American system doesn’t suffer from the rotational leadership that we have seen recently in Australia. Contrastingly, it’s because their definition of party leader is one where with leadership change built into the electoral cycle. Even at their most fractured, such as when Senator Teddy Kennedy took on incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic Presidential nomination, the battle was played out in public, on the convention floor, and once it was resolved in Carter’s favour, the party united and moved on. Whilst there are many stories of smoke-filled rooms of deal-making and backstabbing that determined Presidential nominees, the frequency at which elected leaders are struck down at the whim of the party membership is minuscule compared to Australia. To wit, since the turn of the century, there have been 3 leaders of each the Democratic and Republican Parties, whereas in Australia, there have been 7 Federal Labor and 4 Federal Liberal leaders.
Crossing the Atlantic, and assessing a system more similar to ours, the United Kingdom has exhibited far more leadership stability than we’ve seen here. As Bryant elaborated in his March article, “In its 113-year history, the British Labour party has never knifed a leader. The ALP is nowhere near as squeamish or sentimental.” From 1983 in the Labour Party, and from 2001 in the Conservative Party, elections to the leadership have been taken out of the party room and opened up to a broader contest. In the Labour Party, with its most recent election taking place in 2010 where Ed Miliband ascended to the leadership, the process has both the Leader and Deputy Leader elected by preferential voting in an electoral college, with a third of the votes allocated to the Party’s MPs (including those in the European Parliament), a third to individual members of the Labour Party, and a third to individual members of all affiliated organisations, including socialist societies and trade unions.
The Conservatives’ process is slightly different. Elected MPs vote for nominated leadership candidates until two remain, who then face a runoff as decided by individual party members; it has had mixed reviews within the party, despite being the process which elected now Prime Minister David Cameron to the leadership in 2005. What can’t be denied is that in the most recent leadership elections for both parties, a more inclusive process has run its course; in 2005, 198,844 Conservative members and in 2010, 322,477 Labour members and affiliates, voted in party elections, dwarfing anything we’ve seen here in Australia.
Briefly to reinforce the merits in such forms of leadership elections, consider a country with virtually the same democratic fundamentals as Australia, Canada has a system of leadership elections that combines aspects of the American and British processes. In Canada, the left-wing Liberals undergo a process by which each riding association (akin to an electorate committee) elects delegates to send to a national leadership convention much like the American system and then votes on nominated candidates. For the Conservatives, their process is broadly similar to their UK counterparts where almost 100,000 members took part in 2004’s vote in favour of long-standing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Although some have suggested that in the heavily micromanaged world of political strategy, these kinds of leadership elections are less influential as the outcome is increasingly pre-ordained.
From these three tales from abroad, we can make certain conclusions about the looming benefits from Rudd’s proposed reforms. Put simply, the cycle of leadership changes will come to a close; finally some stability will return to Australia’s system. This has myriad benefits both in the general and more practical sense. In the broader scheme of things, undertaking a more open system of elections builds credibility and democratises this once closed-aspect of our politics. Additionally, a more stable leadership structure allows for more consistent policymaking which in turns compels the media to focus less on gauging numbers in the party-room and more on evaluating proposals from both Government and Opposition; the fundamental role of political journalists after all.
All told, one believes that the time has come for some significant reform to occur in Australia, using some of the principles from the aforementioned countries. A system by which party members vote for their leaders and thus safeguarding the leader from a constant cycle of plotting, honeymoon, betrayal and ouster, will hopefully impel Australia’s democracy and its actors in Parliament and the Press Gallery to be more policy focused. Whilst Prime Minister Rudd’s current proposals will likely achieve this, it’s incumbent on all involved in the political sphere to destroy our coup culture once and for all.