Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten arrive together for ALP caucus leadership ballot at Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares
Labor's federal leadership ballot has been a valuable recruiting and organising opportunity for the ACT branch of the party - as it has for each state and territory branch. Eligibility to vote in this historic ballot was open to everyone who was a member of the ACT branch on September 7, with about 1000 people in the territory joining 45,000 voting members throughout Australia in deciding who will be the next Labor leader.
This has made the ALP the only party in Australia to afford its ordinary members an opportunity to directly participate in the selection of its parliamentary leader. It is a change that has been welcomed by most within the party, with national secretary George Wright saying there is a ''big appetite'' for participatory democracy.
Although there has also been scepticism about the process, the worst predictions of a descent into acrimony have failed to come to pass, and considerable immediate benefits to the party have been obvious to all those who work in or near its offices, and to its representatives throughout the country.
The change most readily apparent at branch meetings around Canberra is that membership has increased. More people have joined and more members have renewed their membership. The enfranchisement of all members, regardless of length of membership and amount of meetings they have attended, was a stroke of genius. It gave an immediate reward to all the new recruits who signed up on the battlefield of the 2013 campaign.
There have also been benefits - beyond the opportunity to cast a vote - for those established members of the ALP who chose to take an active hand in either Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese's campaign. For these individuals, the ballot has been a test of networks, campaign techniques and, in some cases, relationships and loyalties. Grassroots engagement and communication skills have been honed and new technical skills acquired and tested in the field. Far from being a misallocation of effort, this will add to the campaign capacity and skills base of the party and enable better outcomes in future electoral contests.
The candidates' campaigns and those volunteering on them have utilised a new acceptance (some say obsession) within modern politics of the latest communications tools, such as social media, complementing tried and true methods as traditional town hall-style meetings. The extent of these efforts has not been universally welcomed, but it ought to be noted that in many instances campaigning involved a two-way exchange. Not only did the candidates and their organised teams of supporters use the latest communications techniques more effectively than ever before, the party membership and supporters also used new techniques to engage directly with each other.
If the campaigns have been positive for the ALP then so, too, has the conduct of the candidates themselves. In leading by example and ensuring mature and convivial competition and debate, without resorting to personal attacks - despite regular baiting from the mainstream media and the party's numerous external (and sometimes internal) critics - Shorten and Albanese have delivered the most civil federal leadership contest the ALP has seen for decades. This has proved to be particularly cathartic following the end of the Gillard-Rudd leadership contest.
The numerous leadership forums and seminars and debates that were featured in the campaign may also serve to establish a new pattern of regular interaction between the leadership of the parliamentary wing of the party and its membership. When Albanese and Shorten addressed ALP members at the Belconnen Labor Club in September, it was standing room only, with some people travelling from well outside of Canberra to attend. It stood in stark contrast to the descriptions of near-empty branch meetings that have become an almost obligatory feature of commentary about political parties in recent years.
Something should also be said of the role the ALP's much maligned factions played in the conduct of the leadership ballot. Confounding the expectations of many - including, it is likely, the former prime minister who brought the process about - the factions have not only behaved very well but have demonstrated consistent sophisticated and diplomatic communication and organisational techniques and skills. This will come as more of a surprise to many than it should. If they behave in a mature and intelligent manner, organised groups of adults can achieve great things. When the major groups or factions in an organisation can compete and co-operate fairly, the whole organisation can benefit.
After this ballot there has also emerged a clearer line of leadership and authority within the two main factions that will make future co-operation, consultation and negotiation simpler and less prone to breaking down than has been the case.
Of course, it remains to be seen how the ballot process will operate on subsequent outings and time will tell how it will affect the conduct of Labor leaders once in office. But George Wright and his team have done an outstanding job, as have both candidates, their teams and acting leader Chris Bowen. It seems clear the process has had a very successful debut. In addition to the much vaunted benefit of expanding participation, it has strengthened relationships and campaigning skills within the ALP in a way that it is hard to imagine the party failing to profit from into the future.
This article represents the personal views of the authors. Elias Hallaj has been the ACT Labor secretary since 2009 and was previously an assistant national secretary of the ALP. Chris Monnox is a PhD candidate in politics and history, and recently wrote a history of the ACT branch of the Australian Labor Party as his honours thesis at the ANU.