What was new about the Gillard-Rudd leadership contest?
Observers of any political event can be divided into those who see a new development in everything and those who habitually see business as usual. The former can be divided into those who are unusually prescient and those, who knowing little history, are carried away with the moment. The mistake of those who always see business as usual is to fail to recognise that politics is constantly changing.
The most interesting aspect of the challenge in the view of most commentators was the way that Kevin Rudd mounted his campaign to the people over the heads of the caucus, relying on the popular pressure and publicity that this would generate to indirectly win over MPs to his side. Free to devote himself full-time to his challenge he was everywhere in the media. His message was the populist one that every Australian had a right to get involved in this internal party contest. So-called faceless men should be replaced by ordinary voters.
He played on popular resentment generated by the way he had been removed by his party in 2010, a removal which had never been properly explained at the time by Labor, though its genesis had certainly been publicly discussed in books such as David Marr's Power Trip. Rudd's weaknesses had also been confirmed subsequently in books such as Nic Stuart's Rudd's Way and Chris Aulich and Mark Evans in their edited collection, The Rudd Government.
However, not only was this material not widely known to the general public, it was never going to be the sort of information that was going to interest the public. Let's not exaggerate the public's interest in or knowledge of politics. Half of the community, at least, know nothing and care little. Basically they do not know what the job of prime minister entails anyway so they are in no position to make informed judgments about the different ways it is carried out. They could not explain, for instance, the difference between the presidential and parliamentary systems. Nor would they know what cabinet coordination, ministerial responsibility or proper relations with the public service entail.
They would not know that the vulnerability of prime ministers and opposition leaders to quick removal by their parliamentary colleagues in the Westminster system, especially in Australia where only MPs are involved, is conventional wisdom. This is all academic and Canberra insider stuff. Many academics, including myself, and more importantly Labor insiders, consequently failed to predict the immediate popular resentment at Rudd's removal.
Instead academics and insiders fell back on historical parallels such as Paul Keating's removal of Bob Hawke and William McMahon's replacement of John Gorton. There were differences between these events anyway but, regardless, the bigger point is that few in the general public can recall with any clarity what happened 20 years ago in 1991, much less 40 years ago in 1971. And what's more, they don't care.
Furthermore, things have changed since then. Rudd was not the first party leader to cultivate personal popularity when he mounted the ''Kevin 07'' campaign in 2007. Gough Whitlam did something similar in the ''It's Time'' campaign in 1972, but at least his slogan was not personal. The increasing tendency to identify the party with the leader opens the door to campaigns such as Rudd's. The parties encourage the general public to identify with the leader rather than the party.
One consequential option is the one that Rudd took to extremes by not just asking Labor members and supporters to contact their MP but by giving every citizen an invitation. Afterwards some disgruntled voters apparently blamed their local MP for not listening to them by voting for Gillard. Public opinion poll reportage almost dared Labor MPs not to elect the more popular candidate. Sometimes interpretations of the Gillard-Rudd polls didn't even have the good sense to extract the opinions of Labor voters as to who should lead their party.
A longer-term option raised was whether Australian political parties should change their rules to widen how leaders are elected. This could be done by giving all party members a vote, including, in the Labor case, affiliated unions. In an ideal world this might be seen as more democratic (the Australian Democrats allowed its members to elect their leader), but the widespread shrinkage in party members makes it less attractive. This option would favour candidates such as Rudd because the choice would be made not only by voters who knew the candidates less well than MPs, but by voters less inclined to value Westminster parliamentary values, like teamwork and collective leadership, than presidential skills like singular popularity and media appeal. Any proposed change should take these pros and cons into account.
The Rudd campaign should also force us to recognise that the Westminster system, the way we do things, is being challenged by social and technological developments. Direct democracy has increasing appeal and electronic communication makes it increasingly feasible.
There are other hints. Increasingly MPs are asked to consult their electors electronically. All parties are being tempted to introduce some sort of community primaries, involving not just members, to select their candidates.
On this occasion I think there was something new in the air. The conclusion that the style of Rudd's failed campaign shows that this is just not the way we do things in Australia is premature. Potential leaders on all sides of politics will try to learn from it.
All parties should reflect again on their leadership selection methods. The cosy Westminster system, Australian style, remains under challenge.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.