A Leadership Ballot for Labor Leader is Critically Important if the Party is to Grow
It is critically important to the future of the Australian Labor Party that there is a rank and file vote for the next Leader. If the Party is to grow it must broaden its base. The best way of doing that is to give branch members a say in who their next Parliamentary Leader will be.
The reforms that Kevin Rudd introduced in July this year create two electoral colleges within the Labor Party to elect the Parliamentary Leader. 50% of the vote will come from the Parliamentary caucus and 50% from branch members. Similar systems for electing the Leader operate around the world. In fact, until these reforms were adopted, the ALP lagged well behind most leading parties - both progressive and conservative in countries such as the UK, the United States, France, Italy and Canada. I've previously written about the way in which the Canadian New Democratic Party renewed itself a decade ago with the introduction of direct elections of the Leader by its rank and file. The NDP went from being a rump party in the Canadian Parliament to now being the official Opposition, replacing the Liberal Party in that position at their last elections.
The worst thing that could happen right now is for just one candidate to put his name forward for the leadership of the ALP. Labor is well placed with either Anthony Albanese or Bill Shorten as Leader. Both are tough, intelligent and experienced politicians - just the qualities required to lead their Party in Opposition.
The main argument that is being put against a ballot is that this would be a divisive and damaging move. I reject that line of thought. Provided the campaign is conducted over a short, one month period and the contestants act in a respectful way towards each other there is no reason why there should be any lasting fallout.
It is true that the ballot to elect the Labour Leader in the UK went on for far too long and created a vacuum which the incoming Tory PM, David Cameron, was able to fill. My concern though, is that this argument will be advanced by some people in the Labor Party whose main interest is in stopping these democratic reforms from taking root. Whenever major changes to the way power is shared are introduced there will be winners and losers. There is no doubt that by moving power away from factions and some affiliated unions to the rank and file there will be much greater influence exerted by ordinary members.
The fact remains though, that unless Labor moves beyond the "top down" approach where unions account for 50% of the votes at National Conferences, its long term future is far from assured. At a time when unions represent just 18% of the Australian workforce their influence in the Labor Party is disproportionately large. No one should be in any doubt either that there are groups within Labor who are determined to ensure that these democratic reforms are stillborn. That would be a travesty and set back Labor's move to modernise and democratise itself.
So, for the sake of the Labor Party itself let's see a ballot for Leader. Let's use it as an opportunity to encourage new blood to join. Let's use it as a way to harness the talents of those talented men and women who should be the vanguard of Labor's political and intellectual renewal.