Friday, 24 February 2012

Back to the Future Part II: The Fourth Split?

It has now been confirmed that Australia’s last two Prime Ministers will contest a leadership ballot on Monday to determine the leader of the ALP. Rarely has a political event carried more weight outside of a traditional electoral contest. Whether Gillard or Rudd emerges victorious, the wider implications for Australian democracy are indeed worrying.

The ALP has always been a volatile organization. Throughout its 121 year history the party has experienced three crippling splits. The first was during World War One over whether the party should have instituted conscription. The second was during the late 1920s and early 1930s when the power and influence of  New South Wales Premier Jack Lang tore the party asunder. Finally the party split in the 1950s was largely due to the party’s response to communism, this being the major factor in consigning the ALP to a 23 year period in Opposition between 1949 and 1972.

The question is whether the ALP can endure beyond the current crisis? If the unlikely occurs and Rudd wins the ballot, he will struggle to fill a talented and capable Cabinet, this is especially considering only 4 members of the current Cabinet supports Rudd’s bid. What would that mean for a possible Rudd Government mark II? The great majority of Labor’s most talented members will consign themselves to the backbench. We will have a government of 'also rans' and second choices.

However, the more likely outcome is that Gillard will retain her office, but at what cost? Despite the resolute support of the majority of her Ministry, the fact that Rudd can wound Gillard in such a bloody fashion, demonstrates her leadership and more importantly the ALP’s brand is trashed for several elections to come.

The parallels between the current climate and the three proceeding Labor splits are too hard to ignore. The ALP, like all political parties needs strong leadership to survive. The ALP is also a unique party in the fact that it is an conglomerate of various interest groups who need to work collaboratively to ensure its success. Currently the party lacks a sense of identity without widespread popular support, particularly while these interest groups have splintered interests. Parties of the 'Left' in particular struggle to grasp this problem. Often they have adopted social democratic principles in order to achieve electoral success, and as a compromise to ease the tensions between the organisational wing of the party and its membership. This has not worked since the Government was elected in 2007. Hence the ALP, like others has resorted to a Presidential style of politics that focuses upon style of leadership rather than policy acumen, resulting in the amplification of the current tensions. This may be a contest of personality but the central question for the party’s current troubles is one neither contender has been unable to answer.

What are the key differences between a Gillard and a Rudd Government?

If you were to ask the average person on the street, they would probably say there is none. The only differences that have been highlighted over the past four days are how each of them have, or will deal with the party’s internal processes. The ALP in its current form is a policy free zone, as I have argued previously.

The current machinations within the ALP represents one of Australian democracy's greatest test. The only thing that is clear is that the ALP have consigned themselves to several years of irrelevance. As the Liberal Party assume the mantle of government eventually, the ALP’s ability to prosecute any future governments to account will be greatly weakened as a result of the damage the ALP have done to its own reputation over this past week. All done without a single word from the Opposition.

In 2007, the ALP thought they could change the political culture for the good. Less than 5 years later, the party leaves it in a bloody ruin.

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