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'Labor' going down down under?

By squabbling amongst themselves Australian Labor governments fall into the old trap reports Gaye Johnston.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) won the 2007 general election after twelve years of John Howard's Liberal (i.e. Conservative) government. The new Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, rapidly gained popularity. This was for saving Australia from the world recession through a Keynsian economic strategy and for his public apology to Australia's lost generations of indigenous people and former British children in care. The electors appreciated his achievements, intelligence and pleasant public persona. Typical of this was the popularity Rudd gained in 2011 when giving practical help to Queenslanders after floods inundated their homes. TV news showed him wading waist-deep rescuing furniture. He was undoubtedly an electoral asset.

However, within the Parliamentary Labor Party (known as the 'Caucus') the majority view of Rudd was different. He was seen as being arrogant, high handed and possessing a 'tin ear.' He was noted for poor interpersonal and person management skills mainly relating to his Parliamentarians. Rudd spent much of his time on foreign affairs, travelling the world to conduct them. When so doing he delegated much oversight of home policy and routine management to other Ministers, especially to his Deputy Julia Gillard.

ALP Federal leadership elections are still the sole preserve of the Parliamentary Labor Party: as they were in the UK prior to the election of Neil Kinnock. There is no ALP electoral college. In February 2012 the Caucus consisted of 104 Federal MPs and Senators. UK Labour Party rules have long provided supposed scope for a leadership election once every year. Nomination forms are theoretically made available to Labour MPs in the period leading up to Conference. During the New Labour period this rule was always honoured in the breach rather than the observance. A complaint was made about this in the report of the Independent LabOUR Commission on Party and Parliamentary Democracy (2007). The ALP system is that the Caucus can vote for a 'spill' (i.e. leadership election) at any time on a majority vote.

By the early summer of 2010 Rudd's high handedness and arrogance towards Caucus had led to widespread internal resentment. He then suffered his first bout of public unpopularity because of his proposed mining tax and carbon emissions control measures. Caucus rapidly pounced. During a two week period a spill was secretly planned, with Gillard as alternative candidate. Rudd, who discovered this plot at the eleventh hour, calculated that his support in Caucus was insufficient to win and withdrew from the contest. Gillard was elected unopposed and instantly became Prime Minister, as did Gordon Brown, without input from either the wider Labor Party or the Australian electorate. Caucus arrogantly failed to explain to Australian voters why Rudd had been replaced. He was made Foreign Minister (a role which he fulfilled with credit).

The Labor Party then lost popularity. During the general election campaign of August 2010 it was alleged that Rudd, and his allies, caused more unpopularity by briefing against Gillard. She promised any government that she led would never introduce a carbon tax. Labor won the most seats but no overall majority. After prolonged negotiations Gillard cobbled together a coalition including the Green Party and three independents. The Green's pre-condition was the introduction of a carbon tax. There were threats and defections from the 'allsorts' over various issues. In early 2012 Rudd challenged for the leadership. Less than one third of the Caucus supported him and he retired to the back benches. Public disenchantment with a divided Labor Party increased. Polls showed the public still did not understand why Rudd was originally ditched.

The early months of 2012 saw Labor threatened with the loss of its majority in the Lower House. They therefore 'persuaded' their Labor Speaker to resign and replaced him with Liberal MP Peter Slipper (who was facing an expenses investigation). Slipper became 'neutral' and restored Labor's majority of one. MP Craig Thompson, former General Secretary of the Health Service Union, faces possible criminal charges over allegations of misappropriating Union funds. He may have to resign from Parliament soon: Labor would again lose their majority. Meanwhile Labor has flat-lined at 28% on first preference votes in the polls for the last six months.

The Party too proud to keep a popular leader without a political justification or explain its actions to electors, or keep an election promise, in order to hang onto power in the short term, is heading for defeat at the August 2013 general election. Unlike UK Labour, the ALP has not learned that the biggest turn off for voters is a Party 'squabbling amongst themselves' over issues that are not crystal clear to them.