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President Kev

By Chris Lehman - posted Monday, 15 July 2013

Whilst I can understand the interest and excitement raised in some quarters of the media by Kevin Rudd's proposal that the Labor leader be elected by a ballot of both caucus and the membership, I believe that this is not a healthy development and is directly in conflict with the ethos of Westminster democracy.

In spite of recent events, and almost counter-intuitively, I believe that this will over time lead to less stability in the Labor party and the danger that a Labor PM will have an almost unassailable position akin to that of a President and with it, the temptation to rule with little or no reference to the collective judgement of the party.

Unlike the US where the president is directly elected and rules by executive decree within the constraints of the US parliamentary system, our system follows the Westminster tradition of the Prime Minister being the "first among equals", who only is the leader at the behest of their colleagues and only as long as they retain the confidence of the caucus/party room.


What this has meant in the Australian experience is that the person who comes to the office has generally served a long apprenticeship in public life and has built up trust and credibility within their party. When this works well this generally gives rise to a more collegiate style of leadership, group decision making, and a broad "ownership" of policy decisions within the government, even if there are individual differences.

The two most successful PMs of recent years Bob Hawke and John Howard practiced this style of "managerial" rather than "presidential" leadership, and either won over their cabinets and party rooms with the persuasiveness of their arguments, or had enough political capital and authority from within their own ranks to carry the day and convince the team to support their vision. John Howard was a creature of the Liberal party and immersed in its culture, Bob Hawke, whilst not very long a parliamentarian was an iconic national figure enmeshed in the Labor machine, both these men came to the leadership of their parties with a deep understanding of the history and internal politics of their respective tribes.

In contrast, we can use the example of our two most "popular" politicians today, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. These highly intelligent and charismatic men came to the leadership of their respective parties with a combination of hard work and public acclamation, with limited experience as parliamentarians before they made their run at leadership. Both these men in their incarnations as leaders of their parties exhibited more directive and presidential styles of leadership which undermined their standing amongst their contemporaries and violated the "first among equals" principle on which leadership of parties under our Westminster tradition is anchored in.

From my observation, it would seem that Malcolm Turnbull has learned from his experience, and has been the model of constructive team player and loyal cabinet member. Kevin Rudd on the other hand has picked up right where he left off, bludgeoning his party into acceptance of him as the "saviour" from a contrived and measured campaign of leaking and destabilisation against his own. Now he has achieved his goal of reinstatement, he corners them into accepting his agenda of hot button social issues, and then with a straight face announces a policy which would not only of rendered him ineligible to challenge Julia Gillard in 2013, or for her to challenge him in 2010, but would of also prevented him of challenging Kim Beazley in 2006. Breathtaking hypocrisy, fair dinkum… this bloke has "more front than Woolworths".

I would submit that the recent instability in Labor leadership at State and Federal level has less to do with the deficiencies of system of government that has proved adaptable and resilient over a number of centuries, and a lot more to do with the identity crisis in the Labor party. The changes proposed by Mr Rudd run the very real risk of the office of Prime Minister being turned into an executive Presidential office under a Labor government.

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About the Author

Chris Lehman is an electrical contractor.

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