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Mr Rudd or 'Mr President'?

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Well, another working day has passed, and we still have no indication of an election date. But Mr Rudd now has caucus approval for a variant of the leadership proposal he floated a few days ago. A caucus meeting at the Balmain Town Hall, surrounded by angry hecklers of several different persuasions, gave him the approval he sought.

As is common with Mr Rudd, the talk was far and away more dramatic than the reality. 'Today the ALP has passed one of the most significant reforms in the party's recent history. Each of our members now gets to have a say, a real say, in the leadership of the party. The leadership of the party is now not in the hands of a factional few.'

The phrase 'each of our members' points to the proposed 50/50 split in the election between members of the caucus and members in good standing in the party branches, who would enjoy that right for the first time. How that process would occur isn't clear, and it offers us wonderful (or dreadful) pictures of frenzied branch-stacking as the day of the leadership election approaches.


Powerful stuff? Well, the ALP actually hasn't done anything yet. The gathering in Balmain was a meeting of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, or caucus. The reform now has to go to the next party conference in 2014, which will see strong attendance by the unions and the factional heavies whom Mr Rudd dismissed in a hand-wave. Who will be the Leader then? Well, that is what the election date is to some extent about.

Even if the Labor government is returned, which seems unlikely to me, Mr Rudd would not have the kind of support he got in Balmain yesterday. And it is worth remembering that both Stephen Smith and Stephen Conroy, leading figures within the parliamentary party whether or not they are in the Cabinet, and Anna Burke, the respected Speaker, all opposed the Rudd motion.

If Labor is not returned, then I cannot see Mr Rudd holding on to the leadership, unless the margin of defeat was very small. Labor needs some years to rebuild, and a time in Opposition to do it. As I've said before, Mr Rudd is not the solution - he is part of the problem. And if he is not there, I see his leadership changes going no further.

Mr Rudd's popularity in Balmain must to a real degree have been limited. Within the parliamentary party he is detested by some, and only grudgingly accepted by many others. His enthusiastic supporters are a minority, and he is where he is because Julia Gillard was seen as leading the ALP to a historic electoral calamity, and he offered some hope to some MPs in marginal seats. He of course says he expects to win, and he is popular within the party's branches and among some of the young. He apparently has a great contingent of Twitter followers.

The initial proposal was that a leader once elected would retain that position unless 75 per cent of caucus sign a petition for a leadership change; that number has been reduced to 60 per cent. You can see this move as a kind of payback for the pain Mr Rudd suffered when he was deposed in 2010.

But I think that the deeper reason is that Mr Rudd prefers to see himself as a President much more than as a Prime Minister - even though his inducement to caucus was that under his new system caucus would select the Ministers once again. I don't much like the change, though I'm not involved in any way other than as an observer. If we became a republic then one possibility would be an American-style President, though American Presidents choose their own Ministers, and in fact none of them can be a member of Congress. It's a very different system.


But you can hear his ideal in what he said a few days ago, when he announced his plan.

'Today, more than ever, Australians demand to know that the prime minister they elect is the prime minister they get.'

Actually, I don't myself know of any Australians who are issuing such demands. We don't, in point of fact, elect a prime minister, but a local representative, and the ambiguity in what we do on election day runs through the polls. After all, if we had a presidential system, Kevin Rudd would be streets ahead on the current poll standings, where he is popular and Tony Abbott is not. But Mr Rudd's party is not popular and Mr Abbott's coalition is well ahead. Parties are still the important basis to our politics, and like it or not, Kevin Rudd is leading a party that has been desperately unpopular for quite a time now.

Mr Rudd presumably thinks that people will bypass the reality on election day, and really be thinking of and voting for him when they see the names on the ballot paper. I have my doubts.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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