How Should We Elect Our Leader Members or Caucus: Why Caucus Should Elect the Parliamentary Leader

Over the last few years we have seen a healthy discussion on the internal structures of the Labor Party and we have seen some significant reform. It is a great credit to NSW Labor General Secretary Sam Dastyari that, not only are we able to have a sensible debate, but that we have actually seen real action taken.

The Hon. Steve Whan, Former Minister for Primary Industries, Rural Affairs and Emergency Services

Internal democracy and reform is important, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that all change is ‘reform’ or that changing internal processes will make us somehow more appealing to the voters and new members.

It’s policy, leadership and vision that will make us more appealing. That’s why the first major reform we saw after the 2011 State Election, creating a new Policy Forum, was so important.

For more than a century Labor has had a practice of the Labor caucus selecting the Parliamentary leader. It’s a system that has rarely failed us. 

As a person who has been a Labor Party branch member for nearly 30 years, I have never heard a single fellow branch member tell me the method of choosing the leader needs to change.

Our Labor Party has had a few key organisational principles over its history, principles that have differentiated us from the conservatives. Conference as the supreme policy making body is one, Caucus as the basis for the Parliamentary Party is another.

I was surprised and somewhat dismayed when the right for Caucus to choose the front bench was so easily ditched a few years ago. We should be cautious in changing other long standing principles.

Branch members and local communities put their trust in members of Parliament to undertake the critical job of governing or seeking to govern.

Our Parliamentary Leader must be the person who has the confidence and support of that group of people.

I understand the angst many party membershave felt over leadership changes at state and federal levels in recent years. But would the situation really be improved by having a leader who had lost the support of their Caucus colleagues, but who was kept in place by the need to have a new rank and file vote?

For Labor to be effective in both opposition and government, our Parliamentary team needs to be just that - a team. We see on a much bigger scale in the US the problems of a democratically elected president and a hostile but also democratically elected Congress. Is that the sort of problem we want to have within our parliamentary party?

Another major concern is the timeframe for a rank and file vote on leader.

One can only imagine how different Labor history might be if, as Malcolm Fraser drove off to Government House in 1983, he did so safe in the knowledge that his opponent would not be Bob Hawke – because by the time Labor had had its rank and file ballot, the election would be over. 

And what if after Curtin’s death, during the second world war, we had had a two month hiatus in Australia’s leadership as Ben Chifley sought – and hopefully gained – support, rather than getting on with planning Australia’s post war revival.

In NSW I wonder if our longest serving Premier, Bob Carr, would have been well known enough and popular enough among the rank and file in 1988 to win a rank and file election? Who knows? What we do know is that sometimes when you are electing
a new leader it may not always be the person who is the most well known. Caucus is uniquely placed to judge the quality of a person’s parliamentary performance, work ethic and ability to implement Labor policy.

The question for supporters of a rank and file ballot is what sort of campaigning would be permitted. Will we end up like a US presidential primary, with millions being wasted by candidates fighting their own party? Will access to money being a defining factor in the selection of a party leader? 

I hasten to add that I believe the ballot for a state or federal leader is a very different situation to a primary in a local electorate where a person with more limited means has some capacity to secure the support of local branch members and their local communities.

My final concern is the same one I have with calls to remove from our Annual Conference the power to elect the Party President and other Party Officials. Like it or not, Labor’s membership is not evenly distributed across NSW. Country electorates generally have very small numbers of members and, while we will all work to see them increase, they are unlikely to ever match the size of some of the memberships in city seats.

As a Country Labor member I see the prospect of a leadership ballot where the proportion of votes from a few city seats is vastly out of balance with the population distribution of our state as unfair and potentially unrepresentative of the Labor voters
who may not be members, but who do live across the state.

Reform that will bring greater participation in the Labor Party is obviously something we all want. I recognise that in any healthy party there will be different views on how to achieve it. But not all change is reform, and in my view there are
some tried and true practices that make our party more democratic and more representative than the conservatives.

The traditional role of caucus in a Labor Parliamentary party is one of these practices, and it should not be further diminished.