THE DAMAGE inflicted on Labor by Kevin Rudd’s brief and ill-advised second stint as its leader is about to be hit by the full glare of public scrutiny; in tandem with the dearth of real talent the ALP has to work with, the Rudd “reforms” have the potential to hobble the party for many years to come.
It isn’t often that I find myself in vigorous agreement with Stephen Conroy, but the words of that divisive, abrasive Labor warrior on the subject of “reforms” made to the ALP’s leadership selection process by Kevin Rudd are deadly in their potency and accuracy.
In an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph today, Conroy describes the rules — under which Labor’s MPs and its membership base elect a leader with a 50-50 weighting of their voting blocs — as a “farce” that will leave Labor “helpless” and make it look like a laughing stock.
These changes — introduced by Kevin Rudd in the arrogant delusion that he would win last week’s election, and therefore need his back to be covered against colleagues who (rightly) detest the mere sight of him — would need to be endorsed by the ALP’s national conference next year to become binding.
Excluding the unions completely from the leadership selection process — as Rudd intended, in a jab at the party’s dominant AWU right — also seemingly excludes the prospect of any such endorsement ever being forthcoming.
Yet just like lemmings to the slaughter, many of Labor’s MPs appear determined to work within the confines of these “reforms” to the party’s enduring detriment, and Conroy is absolutely right to lash out at them.
We have in this column discussed the issue of major parties giving their rank and file a say in selecting parliamentary leaders before; despite the best of intentions, the practice doesn’t work — often visiting upon MPs leaders without the requisite political skills to cut through, or without parliamentary support, or who personify the agenda of external forces.
Iain Duncan Smith and Ed Miliband — of the UK’s Conservative and Labour Parties, respectively — represent excellent examples of the phenomenon I am talking about.
The ALP, to even clear the first hurdle, must undo these changes before it contemplates a leadership ballot: a sham endorsement of MPs to afford Rudd the apparent cover of party unity is the only dubious legitimacy the measures presently enjoy, and the same process — a vote of MPs — should be employed to undo even that.
And the imperative is obvious: once selected, a dud leader would be virtually impossible to remove (again, as Rudd intended): in opposition, 60% of MPs would be required to petition just for a leadership spill; in government, that proportion climbs to 75%.
It is interesting to speculate whether even Mark Latham would have managed to galvanise 60% of his MPs against him when his leadership imploded in early 2005.
But in the wake of its comprehensive election defeat, Labor’s MPs should be setting about undoing as much of Rudd’s toxic legacy as they can, and the abolition of these “reforms” represent an absolute no-brainer as the very first item of business to be dealt with.
That said, Labor faces a bigger problem in deciding who should become its leader to carry the early fight up to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his shiny new Coalition government.
In a clear sign some in its ranks never learn, influential elements within the ALP appear to be trying to engineer momentum for Bill Shorten to become the new Labor leader.
Shorten is not without ability, and his capacity as a political communicator is unquestioned.
But a Shorten leadership would hand the Liberals a potent, and enduring, weapon.
Simply stated, he can’t be trusted — the role he played in the downfall of Rudd and the elevation of Julia Gillard in 2010, and the subsequent dumping of Gillard in favour of Rudd’s return in June, leaves an enduring question mark over his integrity that the Coalition will be ruthless in exploiting — and rightly so.
And Shorten is publicly perceived as being too close to the union forces behind the Gillard Prime Ministership, and what has become known as the “NSW disease:” a revolving-door, disposable attitude toward Labor’s party leadership, and the negative suggestions of union cronyism and patronage that association evokes.
The other frontrunner — former deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese — is perhaps the better of the two potential choices, but he, too, has his drawbacks.
Albanese, a former Rudd adherent, is unique among Labor’s senior ranks in that he was not only prepared to work professionally with both Rudd and Gillard, but seen to do so.
His fighting instincts and thuggish approach to “fighting Tories” is perhaps what Labor needs at this early stage of what could be a protracted period in the political never-never.
But nobody is suggesting Albanese will ever be Prime Ministerial material; whether he is or not, his abilities as a communicator often lack the coherence and cogency required of a major party leader in Australia’s adversarial political environment.
Nonetheless, few would argue that his only driving interest is the betterment of his party: and on that score alone, some of his colleagues would do well to take a leaf from his book.
Tanya Plibersek, on the surface of it, represents a decisive break with the Rudd-Gillard era that has progressively hobbled Labor over the past seven years, and as we have said before she is certainly a highly capable and astute political operative.
Unfortunately for her, she is also damaged goods: her enthusiastic participation in what some have termed Julia Gillard’s “handbag hit squad” in which she, Nicola Roxon, Gillard herself and others sought to destroy Abbott on a charge of “misogyny” has not enhanced her credibility as a potential Labor leader.
And her propensity as Health minister to play highly partisan games with the conservative states over health funding probably hasn’t helped her cause either.
The former Treasurer, Chris Bowen, is probably the best candidate for leadership remaining in Labor’s parliamentary ranks.
But he has been candid enough to admit he is not ready for to job, and at the very least — like Albanese — has shown a loyalty to Labor’s best interests that transcends his own ambition in doing so.
As we’ve said before, other candidates don’t seem to fit the brief either: former Immigration minister Tony Burke doesn’t have the public profile, for example, whilst former minister for Justice and Home Affairs Jason Clare — like Bowen — is also unready for a leadership role.
I think it’s quite likely Labor’s next Prime Minister is yet to enter Parliament; if this is the case it resolves one conundrum for the ALP (burning a future PM this early in opposition is not a concern) but it does raise two others.
Who is the best person to lead Labor right now? Which of its senior figures represents the best chance of healing Labor as a party, whilst taking on Abbott in Parliament and in the country?
But more to the point, where is its next Prime Minister?
We did talk last week about WA Labor leader Mark McGowan, but even that was only in the context of looking at ready-made Labor leaders within its existing base of MPs around the country, and not through the prism of a prospective Prime Ministership.
For the Australian Labor Party, the choices it will soon make about its leadership will say much of its view of itself, and of what it will offer voters in the medium and longer term.