In a parliamentary system, there is a legitimate case to be made that a party leader should be chosen by the party’s members of parliament, but the Australian Labor Party’s sudden, coup-d’état-like leadership changes in the past few years do not provide for serious, considered scrutiny of the candidates. And because Labor is the party in power, the result has been three successive prime ministerships.
In June, 2010, Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, was voted out by his caucus a day before he was scheduled to leave for the G20 in Toronto. His deputy, Julia Gillard, became prime minister. Two months later, she barely hung to power with one Green MP and four independents. Since then, Mr. Rudd has made three attempts at restoration. After the second, he renounced any further prime-ministerial ambitions.
But with Labor’s weakness in the polls vis-à-vis the Liberal-National Party, Mr. Rudd is suddenly back as leader. Ms. Gillard has resigned as prime minister, having advised the Governor-General to ask Mr. Rudd to try to form a government. She has forsworn politics. The federal election will take place in September.
It was not long ago that British party leaders were similarly chosen by the House of Commons caucus. Such contests are always partly about who is most likely to win or keep power, but the challenge made to Margaret Thatcher by Michael Heseltine in 1990 (resulting in the victory of John Major) engaged serious questions about the place of the state in the economy. The Rudd-Gillard feud, however, seems singularly thin on serious policy issues.
The Australian Labor Party should renounce cloak-and-dagger operations. After the September election, it should now opt for a leadership process based on a wide consultation of the membership.