Why Voters Hate The Midnight Coup


The latest leadership challenge by Kevin Rudd against Prime Minister Julia Gillard is the latest in a long line of hostile takeovers of the party in the last decade. In late 2001, opposition leader Kim Beazley stepped down, and was replaced by Simon Crean without contest. At this point, the party had not experienced a leader losing the support of the caucus in 10 years — since Keating defeated Hawke in late 1991.

Since that 2001 transfer of power, the ALP has seen five leadership contests, in every case the sitting leader facing an effort to remove them from authority. Crean saw off a challenge from Kim Beazley in 2003, before stepping down for Mark Latham. Latham’s resignation in 2005 then saw a contested race between Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd. Beazley was himself defeated by Rudd in late 2006, and in the contest that has reshaped the current federal government, Kevin Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard in June 2010.

Australian politics is used to leadership changes happening in this fashion: an entire party continues to present a façade of unity while a leader is undermined. Eventually the internal conflict bursts out into the public, and within a few days a leader has been replaced and the party changes direction. It isn’t just the case in the federal ALP: it has become common in the Liberal Party federally and in a number of state parties.

In an era when politics has become much more presidential, with attention focused on the party leaders and voters often choosing how to vote based on party leaders, this process of a sudden coup resulting in a dramatic shift can seem shocking. When it takes place in government, it can strip a government of legitimacy: the person who was chosen to lead the government has been replaced with little discussion and no popular mandate. We saw how two successive leadership coups in New South Wales completely destroyed the government’s credibility, and how Julia Gillard’s sudden replacement of Kevin Rudd damaged her credibility and legitimacy.

It doesn’t need to work this way. The system of members of Parliament choosing their leader used to be universal among those English-speaking Western democracies that use the Westminster system, but in the last few decades a number of countries similar to Australia have moved toward a model where party members get a much greater say in who leads their party — and who leads the country.

All of the major political parties in the United Kingdom and Canada, and most of them in Ireland, now give a substantial say to their party’s grassroots members. The model varies: the UK Labour Party gives one third of the vote to ordinary party members and one third to ordinary union members. The UK Conservatives have their parliamentarians narrow the choices down to two candidates, who are then presented to the party membership.

This was most recently seen in the UK in 2010 following the defeat of the Labour government: five candidates stood for leadership of the Labour Party, and Ed Milliband saw off his brother David in a close contest. The centre-left New Democratic Party is still in the process of choosing the new Leader of the Opposition in Canada after their leader Jack Layton died in August 2011.

This model has a lot of advantages over the "midnight coup".

First of all, it gives the new leader legitimacy with the membership — and with the public. A model where voters can wake up the next day with a new PM is bound to leave voters feeling disoriented and disenfranchised. Indeed, it can be argued that Kevin Rudd’s current strategy is taking advantage of this feeling: by giving a week’s notice of his plans and encouraging Australians to contact their local MP and tell them how to vote.

The popular vote model also ensures that a party doesn’t change its leaders lightly: a leadership election can take months, and cost a great deal of money, and in the meantime the party is left disunited. This can ensure that MPs don’t overturn a leadership for petty squabbles or for a brief dip in opinion polls. This is particularly important for a party in government.

If leaders were chosen by popular vote, it would also force those campaigning and organising for one of the potential candidates to do it in the open: you can’t win the votes of ordinary members without taking your campaign to the public. Often leadership contests happen behind the scenes and only become public when they are resolved, with one candidate stepping aside and most MPs not needing to publicly take sides. These contests are far more transparent when all arguments need to be presented to the voters before their votes are cast.

Most importantly, it ensures that a new leader has much greater legitimacy. Even in this age of large donations and large advertising budgets, the rank and file of any party is still important. A leader isn’t just elected as leader of the parliamentary party: they also take the leadership of a movement. Giving those members a say gives them more motivation to support and campaign for the newly-elected leader.

It isn’t a new idea in Australian politics: the Australian Democrats gave all members a vote in their leadership elections for a quarter of a century. The ALP has also been moving toward giving more power to members via a direct vote, with the party’s president elected directly and the party beginning to experiment with primaries to choose candidates. Yet all of Australia’s political parties, both in state and federal parliament, continue to limit choice to the elite sitting in the Parliament.

Part of the reason this issue hasn’t been considered more openly in Australia is the experience of the Australian Democrats. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Democrats were undone by a leader who was elected without the support of her parliamentary colleagues: yet this isn’t the full story. Natasha Stott Despoja had the support of three of the seven members of the Democrats party room. The issue wasn’t so much how the leader was elected, but that the parliamentarians were deeply divided between two alternative leaders.

The current battle between Gillard and Rudd demonstrates that this kind of division happens all the time in major parties, despite only MPs getting to vote in a leadership election. Overseas experience demonstrates that allowing members a vote in leadership elections makes the party stronger, and airing differences in the open is much healthier for the party.

Recent research by William Cross and André Blais into how parties choose their leaders in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom is illustrative in laying out how these reforms are usually achieved. Parties tend to give their members more power after an electoral defeat, and once one party makes the change, other parties tend to follow. This can result in this change quickly spreading through a country’s political system, as was seen in the UK and Canada.

The current conflict between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard seems set to ensure that Tony Abbott remains the clear favourite to win the next election. If Labor’s defeat is as bad as they fear it may be, it would be a good time for the party to reconsider its structures, and look at giving more power to members. This reform may be the only way to end this problem of ever-changing leaders.

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