In praise of the new Labor leadership rules

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The only people who find the new democratic Labor leadership rules disastrous are the machine men who have led the ALP into disaster, says Michael Galvin.

Labor machine men: Graham Richardson and Stephen Conroy.
Disgruntled Labor machine men: Graham Richardson and Stephen Conroy.

ON SKYNEWS last week, two right-wing machine men of the Labor Party ‒ former Senator Graham Richardson from NSW and current Senator Stephen Conroy from Victoria ‒ launched a combined broadside against the new Labor leadership election rules. For 20 minutes, they raved and they ranted. Words like "chaos", "farce" and "circus" were thrown around like confetti. By the end of it, you would have been forgiven for thinking that we were approaching the end of civilisation as we know it; that the idea of allowing ordinary Labor members a say in the leadership process was a recipe for certain disaster.

Well, the process has got under way this week, and it is already obvious that Richo and Conroy were dead wrong. What they couldn't see was that their form of iron control of factional numbers was itself a major turn-off for many Labor supporters. Of course, during their strident diatribes, they failed to mention a fairly important couple of facts.

The most important of these facts was that though the ALP might look crazy brave on this matter, but it is, in fact, a follower rather than a leader — on this, as in so many other issues. The Labor parties in the UK and New Zealand have already gone down this path and there was no sign of those parties imploding as a result of the process. Quite the opposite, in fact, if opinion polls can be believed.

Interestingly, both Ed Milliband in the UK and David Cunliffe in New Zealand became leaders despite the fact that they did not gain majority support in their own parliamentary caucuses. Yet Labour did not self-destruct in either case. This outcome remains a strong possibility in Australia, too, because Albanese seems to have more popular support than Shorten, whereas Shorten is likely to still have the numbers in caucus.

It is also already blindingly obvious that Richo and Conroy were self-interestedly wrong when they predicted a dangerous leadership vacuum while the process took its course. As soon as Chris Bowen opened his mouth on Friday (to announce the election arrangements), and Monday (to point out that Abbott's Australia was now a world-leader in denying women leadership positions in government), it was clear that Bowen was speaking with full authority as Acting leader of the Opposition. In fact, perhaps both Albanese and Shorten are lucky that Bowen is not in the race. Authority ‒ and responsibility ‒ seem to sit comfortably on his young shoulders and he can obviously "cut through" in the 20 second television grab.

Rather than decrying this reform to the way Labor leaders are elected, Richo and Conroy would have been better off spending their valuable time on air explaining and praising the new rules. They had a chance to be on the right side of history, but their own political baggage condemned them to defend vested interests and the status quo instead. They became indistinguishable from other commentators in the media who, as one would expect, have preferred (and wanted) to see this as a continuation of Labor leadership instability. But it does not have to be so and it already isn't so.

Bringing Labor Party members together at public meetings like the one Albo addressed last night in Sydney is one of the best possible tonics for the election defeat. It points the Party forward — towards the future, not back. Caucus members ‒ or at least those who survived ‒ get the chance to lick their wounds together. Meetings like Albo's allow the rank and file to get a similar sense of solidarity, and renewal of purpose. This also allows leadership candidates the rare opportunity to speak openly and honestly about what they stand for and why. The factional deal-making that goes on behind the scenes in caucus is of less importance in this context than the merits of ideas, the qualities of personality and the ability to "connect" with people — all of which are essential characteristics of a good political leader.

It is hard to see the factions trying too hard to "game" this leadership election within caucus. Surely what happened in 2010 is enough to show the players that such a move would be idiotic. It would only swing the membership base further in the opposite direction. Forcing people to say they prefer one leader, when they really don't, is a bit like forcing people to say they love opera, or hate Chinese food when they do not — it's absurd. Leadership is not a quality mandated by a committee vote.

Shorten and Albanese are both, in my opinion, outstanding people and outstanding candidates. But this time round, I want to see Albo win. He is the one more likely to take the fight to Abbott from day one, and less likely to be involved in backroom deals. He obviously believes that Labor can get rid of Abbott after a single term. We need this belief.

One week of Abbott is already enough to overwhelm me with massive deja vu. If Labor can rattle Abbott early, they are likely to do to him what he did so well to Rudd and Gillard — permanently destabilise him and his team. Abbott's CV suggests this outcome. After all, it took him three years to cope with not getting his way at the 2010 election. Albanese is more likely to land such an early blow than Shorten. This is what it comes down to for me.

Albo has one other quality I much admire. He looks genuinely surprised to have arrived at such a senior public position in his life. He has a working class humility and a lack of a sense of entitlement that nearly all boys and girls from exclusive private schools can only dream of.

Go Albo!

Editor's note (Friday 20 September 2013, 10:30am): In an earlier version of this story the byline was incorrectly attributed to Michael Aiken. This has now been corrected. We apologise to the author, Michael Galvin.

Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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