Labor's reform has not been without its internal critics. Photo: Andrew Meares
The failure of the Labor Party to tear itself apart after its defeat last month provides a stunning contrast with the acrimony that followed its last such disappointment in 2004. At least until it came time to select a ministry, there had been more sweetness and light than after the 2010 election, when the party managed to cling to power. Julia Gillard can claim some of the credit. Her dignified silence during the campaign provided a stark contrast with the barely concealed fury of Kevin Rudd during the 2010 campaign.
But Rudd also deserves some credit. The civility that followed the 2013 election defeat has much to do with what might turn out to be the only decision of any lasting significance to emerge from his brief return to the prime ministership: the decision to permit Labor Party members a vote in the election for federal leader.
The reform has not been without its internal critics. The requirement that a leadership ballot can only be triggered if 75 per cent of caucus members withdraw their support from a serving leader struck some observers as excessive, providing any but the most incompetent or unpopular leader with a virtual guarantee of tenure between elections.
When it met in Balmain for a special meeting in July, caucus adopted a lower threshold for when Labor is out of government - only 60 per cent would be required to vote out a Labor opposition leader - but even then removal would be well nigh impossible. In view of the leadership churn of recent years, however, there are perhaps arguments for erring on the side of stability.
A few critics wondered why, unlike in Labour Party leadership elections in Britain, members of affiliated unions would not be permitted to vote. But unions not being the flavour of the month these days - especially in connection with the affairs of the Labor Party - no one but a few disgruntled union officials ran with that objection.
The haste with which the matter was pushed through caucus before the election inevitably resulted in quite a bit of fuzziness at the edges, not least about the matter of who would be footing the bill for the contest. Caucus might have adopted the proposal, but it would be the party organisation, which had been given no say in the matter, that would be expected to pay for it. So, when Labor Party members received their ballot paper asking them to vote in the election, they were also invited to contribute to defraying its cost.
These loose threads might have tempted some people to agree with Senator Stephen Conroy's claim that the new rules were a ''farce'', except for the fact that his record as a notorious factional warlord should automatically disqualify him from offering any opinion on efforts to reduce the power of notorious factional warlords.
Not that Conroy need worry too much; while unions continue to control half the votes at party conferences, the factions' control of the party remains secure. This point was revealed all too clearly when, after Bill Shorten's election, it came time to decide who would sit on the frontbench. Factional chiefs reminded everyone - and notably colleagues accused of having broken ranks by supporting someone other than their faction's preferred leadership candidate - precisely who was boss.
Yet whatever else it did or didn't achieve, the contest between Shorten and Anthony Albanese was largely successful in discouraging, or at least postponing, factional strife.
The leadership contest not only resulted in politeness between Left and Right factions, but it also - at least for the time being - seems to have healed some bitter divisions within the factions. Conroy and Shorten, for instance, both of the Victorian Right, seem to have healed their breach.
The Right united behind Shorten, the Left - with exceptions that were ultimately decisive - supported their man, Albanese. Almost 64 per cent of caucus voted for Shorten, while just over 60 per cent of the membership swung behind Albanese. Although there have been calls for the party rank-and-file to be given an even greater say in the leadership, this response has the inevitable appearance of sour grapes and is most unlikely to lead to any such change.
Indeed, the Labor Party has narrowly averted what may well have been an outcome with serious consequences for future stability; the election of a leader for whom a large majority of the parliamentary party had not voted. The conservative press in Britain was delighted in 2010 to label Ed Miliband as ''Red Ed'' when he came to the Labour leadership with the strong support of unions but lacking a majority of the parliamentary party. Much the same would have happened here. The apparent lack of enthusiasm for Shorten in the party membership is likely to be less potent in undermining his authority than a lack of caucus support would have been because, in practice, the party leader does not have to work on a day-to-day basis with the party rank and file. Ordinary party members do not leak to journalists, nor do they ''background'' against a leader struggling in the polls.
All the same, the leadership contest itself has surely been one of the more positive happenings in Australian politics in the last generation, and the contestants themselves can take some credit for the apparent success of the venture. Both Shorten and Albanese were sensible in not attempting to turn the affair into a major contest over policy. Neither was in a position to commit the party to a particular agenda over the next three years. There was cynical and even hostile commentary from the media about the lack of real policy differences between the two. But what did they expect? When policy differences between the parties are often hard to discern, why should one expect to see a chasm between two contenders for the leadership of the same party? That they came from different factions doesn't affect this question. It's a long time since Labor's factions represented coherent ideological positions.
Nonetheless, it should worry the ALP that there was such a massive gap between the caucus and membership votes at this leadership election. Does it mean that the party below has so withered away that it is a rump of activists hopelessly unrepresentative of the pool of voters the party will need to attract to regain government? Perhaps not, if any indication is provided by a recent Fairfax poll based on Victorian and NSW voters, which found that Albanese was more popular than Shorten in both states.
But at the very least, the gap exposes a parliamentary party that is seriously unrepresentative - at least in its attitude to who should lead the Labor Party - of the views of the ALP's broader membership. This would not be surprising given the disempowerment of that membership base over the last generation, and especially its lack of say in who actually gets to sit in Parliament.
The leadership election has done nothing to fix this not inconsiderable problem.
Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the Australian National University and has written widely on the Australian Labor Party. An earlier version of this article appeared in Inside Story (inside.org.au).