My husband and I, coffees in hand, gaped at each other on Thursday morning after turning on the TV and anxiously exclaimed “That can’t be the time!” And indeed it wasn’t - instead unfolding was a news event so significant that the TV stations dropped their usual half-hour delay for “live” broadcasts in South Australia. After what seemed like hours of footage of impatient journalists crammed into a narrow parliament house corridor, an old and dispassionate-looking man, now known to be Labor Party returning officer Michael Forshaw, announced that Julia Gillard had been “elected unopposed” in a secret vote of the Labor Party caucus as the next Prime Minister of Australia.
The event was as surreal as it was unnerving: we “the people” were mere powerless observers as 115 members of the Labor Party parliamentary caucus, led by a few factional bosses, “ousted” the Prime Minister - the Prime Minister! - in a secret and (almost) impromptu meeting.
Comments published throughout the Australian media, both TV and in print, showed the leadership transfer left a bad taste in the mouth of the public. As an example, a few comments taken from the Adelaide Advertiser’s website reveal discontent.
One commenter asks: “The Australian Labor Party voted Gillard as PM not the Australian public, how can this be right?”
Another commenter, less diplomatically, mused: “How dare those ingrates in [C]anberra decide my vote and that of many thousands counts for nothing.”
In truth, Australians are not empowered to decide the PM, only their local representative in the Parliament, and yet it seems that the Australian people are not happy that such a decision, important enough for the media to throw caution to the scheduling chaos wind and broadcast events truly live, was so secret, sudden and involved so few.
But of more surprise to me is that, throughout all of this commentary, there was a total absence of a connection made between that bad taste in our mouths and any reform of the system that caused it. Why is it that no one seems to be demanding that we change the processes of leadership selection in Australian political parties? This is perplexing. It is either an amazingly conservative society or disempowered one that, when confronted with a structural problem, does not even dare to think about ways that the problem could be resolved.
My purpose here is not to critique goings on in the ALP, but to contribute to the beginnings of discussion about alternative methods of leadership selection that might serve Australian democracy better. We ought to consider methods of leader selection that don’t sideline and disempower citizens to the same degree as election by parliamentary caucus - in short, we should think about methods more compatible with democracy.
We don’t have to look far to find inspiration. Political parties in both our Westminster cousin, Canada, and parent, the United Kingdom, have ditched party leadership by parliamentary caucus in favour of more democratic leadership elections - ballots of the broader party membership after an open call for nominations and an extended, public campaign period.
For example, in the UK Harriet Harman is only acting leader of the British Labour Party until the Labour Party’s leadership election takes place in August and September this year (in fact Harman is not a candidate for leader of the Labour Party). The British Labour Party calls for nominations from MPs, and three months later, after extensive campaigning, Labour members of the House of Commons (and the European Parliament), the rank and file members of the party and members of affiliated organisations (mostly unions) vote on those nominated candidates. Certainly concessions have been made to the party elite so that it is not a straight vote of rank and file members, but the process is at least open and public and will involve many thousands of people (almost 200,000 people voted in the Conservative Party leadership election of 2005). Brits will have known from June through to September who the candidates were. The leadership candidates will have campaigned openly and publicly for the role of leader of the Labour Party.
In Canada, similar democratic processes exist in all the major parties and (usually) involve hundreds of thousands of people across the nation.
While existing models will not be exactly suited to Australia, the broad idea of party leaders selected by the party membership and not just the party’s parliamentary caucus has several advantages.
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