A great experiment in democracy

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The Labor leadership contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese provides a fascinating juncture in Labor history, with the rank and file membership having a say in who will lead the party for the first time. This adds an unknown quantity to the ballot, throwing the contest open much more broadly than it would have otherwise been had it been conducted as a strict vote of the caucus. Despite this radical change in the method of electing the leader, we can see in the Shorten/Albanese contest some reflections of past leadership contests in the Labor Party, in the background, style and philosophy of the candidates.

Bill Shorten addressing Labor members in Sydney.

Shorten and Albanese have both provided a long term of service to the Party and to the broader labour movement – both through early involvement in student politics, and then Albanese as an assistant state secretary and adviser, and Shorten through his career in the Australian Workers Union, including as national secretary. This, however, is where many of the similarities between the two seem to end.

Albanese grew up a working class kid raised by a single mum, attending a Catholic boys’ school in Sydney before studying at university and becoming active within the party. Albanese is known as a parliamentary headkicker and is widely regarded as one of Labor’s strongest parliamentary performers, while also proving his negotiating skills as Leader of the House during the hung 43rd parliament. During one of the multiple Rudd/Gillard contests, Albanese famously said “I like fighting Tories”, a phrase that has become well associated with him and reflective of his approach to politics in many ways.

The winner will arguably have a stronger mandate to place their stamp on the party than previous leaders

Shorten was educated at Xavier College in Melbourne before attending Monash University, and as well as graduating in Arts/Law has also earned a Masters of Business Administration. He presents a markedly different public persona to Albanese, appearing more polished and mixing well in different circles across society. His rapid rise from parliamentary secretary to Cabinet Minister and now leadership contender has been long predicted by many commentators.

The most recent leadership contest in the Labor Party – the ongoing saga between Rudd and Gillard, was not a contest about ideas or the philosophical direction of the party but one primarily about popularity. There was, however, a certain element of ownership of the party involved in the 2010 change from Rudd to Gillard, with the leadership style of Rudd seriously questioned by his colleagues. This invoked the famous question asked by Jim Cairns during the 1968 leadership contest with Gough Whitlam – “whose party is this – ours or his?”

That contest itself was, similarly, not about major philosophical differences, but largely about the leadership style of Whitlam, who brought on the ballot himself by resigning his position to stamp some authority over the party, a gamble which almost did not pay off. Nonetheless, Cairns attracted the support of many who were unhappy with the direction in which Whitlam was taking the party. Being key members of caucus during the Rudd-Gillard years, both Shorten and Albanese will know the importance of leadership inclusiveness.

Subsequent leadership changes have been, mostly, about either generational change, polls, or both, with polls of course being a decisive factor. Labor changed from Hayden to Hawke in 1983 to ensure ourselves of victory, from Hawke to Keating when Hawke faltered against Hewson and the GST, and then there were the numerous changes from 2001 – 2013 because it looked like the incumbent would lose – changes that are made significantly harder under the new leadership rules

While Shorten and Albanese are not promising radically different philosophical approaches, each would likely take the party in different directions. As a Minister, Albanese showed his enthusiasm for nation-building projects, with a strong passion for infrastructure spending. He is from the Left faction of the Labor Party and his style as leader of the opposition would likely be an aggressive one, taking the fight up to the Liberal Party as he has done throughout his career in Parliament. Shorten has tended to seek out a middle ground in politics, giving speeches prior to being in Parliament about “the politics of hope”, and he has shown a consultative style throughout his career, putting effort into meeting with and listening to many stakeholders in his work on, for example, DisabilityCare Australia and also as Superannuation Minister when putting together the MySuper package of reforms. As mentioned earlier, Shorten is well connected through different parts of Australian society. Perhaps in this regard we can see echoes of Keating in Albanese (an aggressive, passionate style) and Hawke in Shorten (more consultative and consensus building).

Former Deputy PM Anthony Albanese.

Following the resignation of the leader after election defeats in 1977 and 1996, Labor had a standout contender for the leadership to turn to – Bill Hayden in 1977 and Kim Beazley in 1996, both of who came close to leading the party back to government after substantially worse defeats than what we have just faced. While the leadership will not automatically fall to anyone this time, the contest will be a fascinating one to watch to see how the candidates pitch their case for the leadership and how it will play out for the party. The winner will arguably have a stronger mandate to place their stamp on the party than previous leaders, and this great experiment in party democracy between two strong candidates provides an excellent base for the party to build and grow from.

Kieran Fitzgerald is a Sydney-based lawyer and writer. Follow him on Twitter @kjob85.