When the Federal Parliamentary Labor Caucus meets in Canberra on Monday, July 22, it will be a red letter day in the 120-year history of Australia’s oldest party.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has seized his return to the Prime Ministership and his soaring popularity to insist on a dramatic reform of the Labor Party.
He is proposing to change the way Labor elects its leader. Instead of a vote by Caucus he wants to combine the MPs’ vote with one involving the entire party membership.
If his plan is approved, at a stroke he will have curbed the power of the factional chiefs who have previously stage-managed leadership placements at a federal (and state) level.
Kingmakers such as former NSW general secretaries Graham Richardson, John Della Bosca, Eric Roozendaal and Mark Arbib, all machine men, wielded enormous influence in backing their favoured candidates for the leadership.
Since prime minister Paul Keating’s defeat in the 1996 election, federal Labor has experienced five leaders – Kim Beazley (twice), Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Kevin Rudd (twice) and Julia Gillard.
During these turbulent years party powerbrokers and union bureaucrats came to believe in their self-appointed right to decide who would be party leader and who would be out in the cold.
Party members had no say at all and simply heard about any leadership change from the media.
The Ruddites, who now form the most aggressive faction in the federal caucus combining right, centre and some left MPs, want to rewrite party rules at the July 22 meeting.
First, they are proposing a ballot by Federal MPs as well as registered paid-up branch members to elect the leader. Most significantly, the unions, as a bloc vote, aren’t part of the mix.
Second, they want to end the party room coups by introducing three explicit ways to trigger a leadership change: the leader resigns or dies in office; a federal election loss; or a 75 per cent vote of no confidence by MPs in the Federal Caucus.
Unsurprisingly, the dramatic change is also about K Rudd. He has firewalled himself against a challenge if he becomes Opposition Leader after the election. He has outflanked the MPs who grimly voted for Mr Rudd to become leader but wanted to dump him after the election and appoint Bill Shorten or someone else.
New Labour model
The Rudd model is based on the system used by New Labour in Britain and significantly two leading figures from the British party have visited Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra to discuss party reform.
On May 15 NSW general secretary Sam Dastyari hosted a Centre Unity meeting at the Trades Hall in Sussex Street to hear a speech by Richard Angel, deputy director of Progress, a magazine funded by the billionaire retailer Lord David Sainsbury which is the rallying point for the remaining supporters of former prime minister Tony Blair in the UK Labour Party.
In the week that Mr Rudd regained the prime ministership, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s communications director from 1997 to 2003, held meetings with Rudd backers to discuss the reincarnation of Kevin 07.
After the fall of Julia Gillard Campbell told the BBC: “I just don’t know where it’s going to end to be honest, because the truth is that Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, he’s had a total free run now going on for three years. And at least Rudd can try and tackle him now. It’s a mess.”
Campbell became notorious as a forceful Downing Street spin doctor, but less well known is his role as one of the architects of New Labour. As political journalist Peter Oborne explained in his biography of Campbell:
“The paradox is that Campbell, for all his red-blooded general political opinions, is the biggest moderniser of the lot when it comes to changing the Labour Party. It is the absence of deep personal Labour roots, the relative ignorance of the party’s history, the lack of interest in or knowledge of the party’s guiding ideas, that help make him the force he is.” (Alastair Campbell – New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class by Peter Oborne, Aurum Press 1999).
Mr Rudd’s Lazarus-like comeback has been so popular (so far) that his dramatic reforms will be accepted by the Caucus. But will they be welcomed by the unions which have traditionally exerted a powerful influence in leadership selection?
Rudd has cleverly purchased the support of the party’s left wing by installing Anthony Albanese as deputy prime minister. “Albo”, formerly a Beazley, Crean and Gillard loyalist, is now first among the Ruddites.