Electing the party leader

On 8 July 2013, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced proposed changes to the way in which the Australian Labor Party elects its leader. The changes included votes by the party membership and votes by the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP), weighted at 50% each, and processes for when and how a leader can be challenged and the amount of Caucus support needed to mount a challenge to the leader. The special meeting of Caucus on 22 July 2013 endorsed the proposals but agreed that a petition challenging the leader should require 60% Caucus support rather than the 75% proposed by Rudd. It was also agreed that, in the period between the federal election and the ALP election of its leader, the deputy leader or the highest ranked House of Representatives member would act as leader.

On 17 September, the ALP National Executive issued guidelines and a proposed timeline for the election of the leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party:

13 September      Nominations open

18 September      States send National Returning Officer (NRO) rolls of qualified Party

20 September      5:00pm nominations close

24 September      Member voting opens, ballot papers and candidate statements issued

9 October            5:00pm Member ballot closes*

10 October          4:00pm Members of FPLP meet to vote for Leader

11 October          NRO count of member ballot

13 October          2:00pm Caucus RO count of FPLP vote and declaration of elected

* The National Executive extended the members' ballot to 5.00pm Friday 11 October because of a delay in some WA members receiving their ballot papers.

Financial members of the ALP at 7 September are eligible to vote. Candidates are not permitted to use paid media advertising and all financial transactions related to the election are to be conducted through ALP National Secretariat accounts established for this purpose.

At the close of nominations on 20 September there were two candidates: Anthony Albanese (Grayndler, NSW) and Bill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Vic). Because the FPLP’s deputy leader (Albanese) was a candidate, former Treasurer, Chris Bowen, became acting leader for the interim period in line with the rules endorsed by Caucus on 22 July.

Both candidates have embarked on nation-wide campaigns: meeting members in each state and territory, giving media interviews, using social media and holding public debates. The candidates have held three public debates; two televised live on ABC News 24 and one on the ABC TV Q&A program. Members have reacted positively to the process and there are reports that the ALP has experienced an increase in membership. Interim leader, Chris Bowen said in a radio interview ‘it’s a great process; the party membership has been invigorated by it … [and] we’ve been deluged with membership applications’.

Concerns have been expressed about the distraction caused by the month-long campaign and the legitimacy of the successful candidate if he does not secure a majority of both caucus (FPLP) and party member votes. Commentators have suggested that Mr Albanese will secure a majority of members’ votes while Mr Shorten is expected to win the Caucus vote.

Australian political parties have been slow to adopt more democratic models of electing the party leader and members of parliament have, until now, retained the exclusive right to elect their leader. Only the Australian Democrats, no longer a party represented in the federal parliament, have included members in the election of the party leader. 

A large number of international political parties have moved to democratise party processes and now include party members in the election of the party leader. In the United Kingdom, all three major political parties have given formal voting rights to their individual members in leadership elections.

UK Labour has adopted a three-way Electoral College model consisting of members of the parliamentary party, affiliated members (for example, trade unions) and Labour Party members. In 2010, Ed Miliband won the leadership contest with a majority of union votes but not a majority of the votes of MPs or party members. The Guardian said before the vote that ‘Labour is lucky, save in the 1981 deputy leadership contest, that it has never elected a leader or deputy in the modern era against the majority wishes of ordinary party members’. The election of Labour Party leaders is described in detail in a paper published by the House of Commons Library. The UK Conservative Party and the Liberal Democratic Party both involve party members in leadership elections. In Canada, most of the major parties have also adopted a more democratic election process involving members.

In November 2012 the New Zealand Labour Party adopted a model, much like that used by UK Labour, giving caucus 40% of the vote, party members 40% and affiliated unions 20%. The leadership election took place in September 2013 with three candidates nominating for the position. The successful candidate, David Cunliffe, secured a majority of votes from members and affiliated unions but not the Caucus.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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