ALP Leadership Contest, Factional Divisions and the Spectre of International Crises

BY BEN HABIB.

The current Gillard-Rudd confrontation highlights the problems that Australia’s 20th century political parties face in dealing with 21st century policy problems.

The Gillard-Rudd rivalry is a story of ambition, bitterness and betrayal.  The current confrontation has been inevitable since Gillard deposed Rudd as Prime Minister in 2010.

Gillard should have the numbers to see off Rudd’s challenge.  That she has waited so long to bring the confrontation to a head may have been an error.  The Prime Minister is a master of negotiation and compromise, both important skills for a politician.  Until now, however, she has not demonstrated the ruthless streak necessary to kill off Rudd’s ongoing challenge to her leadership.

Yet there is a broader dimension to the ALP leadership crisis that is more complicated.

Much has been made of the factional divisions within the ALP.  All large organisations have factional divisions.  The question is, how have the Labor Party’s factional divisions led to this particular outcome at this particular time?

In the post-World War Two era, both the Labor and Liberal parties have transformed into catch-all parties who attempt to attract universal support.  Because of their broad base both parties have significant factional divisions.  These divisions get exposed when the parties are forced to confront complicated, big-ticket policy problems that aggravate the philosophical differences between party factions.

Labor’s 2010 leadership change was a consequence of Rudd’s failure to deal with one of these immense policy issues, climate change, after he walked away from the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.  The climate change debate also claimed two Liberal Party leaders, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.

After decades of relative political and economic stability, local political leaders have to confront enormous international policy problems like the global debt crisis, energy and food insecurity, and climate change, intractable challenges for which there are no easy solutions.  Regardless of where you stand on these issues, they are policy time bombs for broad-based political parties.

The Coalition should beware.  The same pressures driving the ALP’s self-destruction are also likely to expose the deepening division between conservatives and small-L liberals in the Liberal Party.  As leaders across the world are discovering, winning government at the present time can be a poisoned chalice.

***NOTE: A version of this article was published in the Border Mail under the title ‘Poisoned chalice of the big issues,’ 24th February 2012, p. 3.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, has studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea, and has extensive field experience in Northeast Asia.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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3 responses to “ALP Leadership Contest, Factional Divisions and the Spectre of International Crises

  1. Interesting article Ben, but I’m not entirely convinced of some of your assertions. I do agree that broad based parties will inevitably have more difficulty facing some of the current day challenges, that has become clear not just in Australia but globally. However I am not entirely sure that Rudd’s 2010 defeat necessarily had all that much to with Climate Change and political re-negging (if they toppled leaders for that, no one would last very long!). It seems that they required a reason to remove someone that (seemingly) very few people could work with, and his backing down on the ETS handed it to them on a platter.
    I’m also interested to hear your view on whether all of this is a terminal blow for PM Gillard? From all I see it seems that she will win, but it’s unlikely that she will annihilate him which is what she really needs to do if he is to go away. And obviously if he somehow does win, half the cabinet seem to say they are going to resign rather than work for him again so where does that leave them? Is there a good outcome possible out of all of this? For anyone apart from Tony Abbott I mean…..*shudder

    • Thanks for your comment Jo. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying here…

      “However I am not entirely sure that Rudd’s 2010 defeat necessarily had all that much to with Climate Change and political re-negging (if they toppled leaders for that, no one would last very long!). It seems that they required a reason to remove someone that (seemingly) very few people could work with, and his backing down on the ETS handed it to them on a platter.”

      Plenty of leaders can be arseholes that nobody likes, but they endure on the basis of strong performance. In late-2009, Rudd was still enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity in the polls. If he called a double-dissolution election after the second rejection of the CPRS bill (or any of the numerous other double-dissolution triggers that were available at the time), most pundits seem to think that the Coalition would have been destroyed again and Rudd’s position at PM would have been virtually unassailable.

      My point is that the climate change issue, as a difficult and divisive policy problem, provided the context for Rudd’s indecision and thus the fissure through which the personal antagonisms he created burst forth.

      What I see going forward in a background of more or less permanent crisis for the foreseeable future, created by these converging international problems that will continually expose the divisions within our major political parties, making such intra-party fighting more common.

      Over the longer term, I would not be surprised to see the major parties lose their relevance and even collapse, because it is not clear from their ideological orientations that they are capable of constructively addressing these converging global problems.

      I look at what’s happening in other liberal democracies for clues as to what may happen here. In the US, I see both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party Movement as explicit rejections of the traditional Republican-Democrat two-party system. I see the triumph of the Liberal Democrats in Britain at the last election and the rise of the far right in Europe over the past decade as creatures of the same converging crises.

      As for what the ALP leadership spill means for Gillard, I think she needs to destroy Rudd comprehensively on Monday, both in the ballot and afterwards in what she demands of him in the aftermath. This might be the only real way she can establish some authority as PM in the eyes of the electorate.

      Looking forward to your thoughts on these comments Jo, or contributions from other readers.

  2. Good analysis Ben — and not an optimistic outlook on global developments; well who could have one! What strikes me about this ‘contest’ between Rudd and Gillard is that it is not over something that is really visible to the average punter, whose opinion is considered so important but actually isn’t – we’re not having an election next week or next month. Yet the whole basis on which KRudd is running for the (not vacant) position of PM is that the people want him. It appears at the moment that they do, which can only be because they didn’t ever see ‘the real Kevin’ ( even though the one that is on display this week doesn’t look very nice to me!). And MPs seemed to have forgotten just what the real Kevin they knew and hated was really like until he suddenly stood up and started telling them what they should think.
    It’s a mess!
    My only question is one other imponderable – what if the current warmongering from the likes of Clinton and Hague gets us involved in WW 3 –? Who will be the better war-time PM?

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