Bill Shorten officially announces he is standing for the Leadership of the ALP after the federal election loss. Photo: Jason South
Labor is broadly on the right track with its new way of electing its leader because all political parties could do with an re-invigorated membership. This is one method of achieving that aim.
Anything of the sort will be far from the minds of the victorious Coalition parties, of course. But in their hearts many of them know that all is not right with their own party processes. It is time to drop the traditional in-house method.
The political party system is crying out for new ideas, including more participatory democracy.
Illustration: Peter Lewis
When I first voted more than 40 years ago, political parties were still regarded as the great pillars of the parliamentary system and few people doubted that they were a good thing. Political scientists universally sung their praises as central to democracy.
Now the reverse is true and few people are able to robustly defend our present system. The symptoms are disenchantment, cynicism, falling membership and the rise of almost member-less micro parties in the Senate.
There is plenty of domestic and international evidence that the world increasingly recognises the virtues of wider participation in leadership elections.
It works, and Labor, however clouded its motives, has taken the right path.
The new processes may have to be fine-tuned at some stage in the future. Is the 50-50 mixed system right? What about the checks and balances?
It also poses some risks for the party if the election process turns out to be acrimonious or flawed in some way. Labor is opening its inner workings to the public. But major parties around the world do it, and the Australian Democrats did it many times.
First of all there is the question of party membership itself about which all parties are notoriously defensive and vague. How many members does Labor actually have? It is in the party's interest that as many as possible are enrolled to vote. That is why the rules are being relaxed to allow newer members to vote.
It is also in the party's interest that as many eligible members as possible vote. It would be a dreadful look if the whole exercise turned out to be a big yawn.
It remains to be seen how much the candidates campaign on policy as distinct from personality or experience.
Critics say the party, in the heat of defeat, may be locking itself into policy priorities too soon.
The candidates also must campaign in a way that allows them to work side by side after the ballot is concluded. This is not generally the case with US presidential primaries (though Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton managed it in a way) or primaries in individual electorates where the defeated candidate goes away. But that is the case in the traditional method anyway, and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd were not the first to find that difficult (remember John Howard and Andrew Peacock).
It also remains to be seen how much factional leaders seek to manipulate the campaign. It would be strange if they didn't play a role, given that factionalism runs in Labor's blood and the two candidates, Bill Shorten from the Right and Anthony Albanese from the Left, represent different factions.
There is always the danger that a candidate might try to win an internal ballot by telling ordinary members what they want to hear rather than what the candidate believes. MPs may be more hard-headed about the party's needs.
Moderate candidates may try to appeal to the extremes within their own party in order to succeed (and there is some evidence that both Coalition and Labor MPs are more centrist than their own party members).
This was a problem for Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary race because registered Republican voters were more conservative than the American electorate as a whole.
As a consequence Romney was driven further to the right than he wanted to be.
However, the mixed system (50 per cent MPs and 50 per cent members) makes this danger less likely. And the tendency to tell voters what they want to hear can happen in a caucus vote too.
Finally, the process raises the danger that the winning candidate may end up either winning narrowly or lacking the support of either a majority of MPs or a majority of party members.
The problem of a narrow victory in itself is no problem. After all, a one vote party-room victory didn't hinder Tony Abbott's role as opposition leader.
At the time of that leadership vote, who knows whether Abbott had the support of a majority of Liberal Party members. We will never know.
So long as the election result is reasonably even among both MPs and ordinary members, as will probably be the case in this instance, this is a risk worth taking. Only if a candidate with massive support among party members failed to win because of very little support among MPs or vice versa would that be a problem. It may be that MPs will take more notice of the opinions of local members in casting their votes and vice versa.
The dangers seem to me to be manageable and rarely greater than already exist under the traditional caucus method. The benefits are real.
Furthermore, the process is happening at a time, during the new government's honeymoon period, when there is not much that an opposition can usefully do. It is a terrible time for an opposition leader. Why not use it for the two leadership candidates to move around the country speaking to their own party members and indirectly to the wider community?
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.