Will New Rules Mean New Results for Labor?

Earlier this week, Prime Minister (and Leader of the Australian Parliamentary Labor Party) Kevin Rudd announced a series of party reforms he proposed to take to a special caucus meeting. The headline reform was changing the way that the Federal parliamentary leader was to be elected. Under Rudd’s proposals:

The federal parliamentary leader of the Labor Party will be elected jointly by the party membership across the nation and the members of the federal parliamentary Labor Party on the following proportional basis. Votes by the party membership across the entire nation being weighted at 50 per cent and votes by the federal parliamentary Labor Party weighted at 50 per cent.

This is a system similar to that used by many political parties in other Westminster democracies, such as the British Labour Party.  On this surface, this proposed rule change appears to be significant but, as with all rules reform, what must be asked is whether the rules will actually make a difference. In other words, will these new rules produce different results than under the previous model.

Until it is adopted and the Australian Labor Party runs its first leadership ballot under the new leadership election model, it is impossible to accurately answer this question. However, using polling data, I believe we are able to gauge some idea of how this new rules might impact leadership contests by ‘re-running’ recent Labor leadership contests using this new model. As far as I am aware, there is no polling data on Labor party rank-and-file members on who their preferred Labor leader should be.

However, Newspoll has frequently surveyed voters about who their preferred Labor leader would be, and than divided that figure into those voters who identified themselves as Labor supporters. Studies of the British Labour Party leadership election process suggest that polling of preferred leaders amongst Labor party supporters generally correlate with the preference amongst Labor party members. Therefore, using these Newspoll results along with the results of the parliamentary ballots, we can ‘re-create’ what previous Labor leadership ballots might have looked like under Rudd’s new proposed model.

There have been 8 Labor leadership spills in the last decade. However, 3 of these spills were uncontested so even under Rudd’s new model, there would not have been a ballot of the rank-and-file so the new rules would not have been exercised. Therefore, we are left to look at what the result might have been in the 5 other contested leadership ballots had they been conducted under the new proposed model.

For the purpose of this hypothetical exercise, we are going to ignore whether under other components of Rudd’s new rules (such as the 20% nomination threshold and the 75% threshold for any caucus spill petition) would have prevented any of the previous leadership spills from taking place.

26 June 2013 leadership contest 

The most recent Labor leadership contest was that between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard a few weeks ago. The incumbent, Gillard, called a spill for 7pm on June 26 earlier that afternoon. The challenger, Rudd, contested the ballot and won 57-45. There were 102 caucus members and all of them casted a valid vote. See below:

Parliamentary Labor Party ballot

Candidate Caucus vote Percentage
Kevin Rudd

57

55.9%

Julia Gillard

45

44.1%

The most recent Newspoll before the ballot that asked Labor supporters who their preferred leader found the following:

Best candidate to lead the Labor Party amongst Labor supporters

Candidate Support
Kevin Rudd

42%

Julia Gillard

46%

Bill Shorten

7%

Uncommitted

5%

(source: Newspoll 8-10 March 2013)

In applying the Newspoll result to a hypothetical leadership ballot, we must ignore the supporters who are uncommitted and assume that they would not vote in a ballot or would split 50-50 between the two candidates. The uncommitted portion is so small (5%) that it would have little impact on the result regardless.

The question that arises is what to do with the 7% of respondents who prefer Bill Shorten. We can either (1) exclude them from the calculations as we did with the uncommitted respondents or (2) assume that the respondents who prefer Shorten would have locked their support behind Rudd once Shorten endorsed him before the ballot. I have run the ballot under the new rules using both of the suggestions, and ultimately it has had little impact on determining who would win the contest.

Note: in the ballots below and in all of the hypothetical ballots, ‘PLP’ refers to Parliamentary Labor Party (the caucus vote) and ‘R&F’ refers to the Rank-and-File members vote (which in these hypotheticals, is based off Newspoll findings)

Candidate support if ballot conducted under the new rules (& Shorten respondents are excluded)

Candidate

PLP (50%)

R&F (50%)

TOTAL

Kevin Rudd

55.9

47.7

51.8

Julia Gillard

44.1

52.3

48.2

Candidate support if ballot conducted under the new rules (& Shorten respondents are given to Rudd)

Candidate

PLP (50%)

R&F (50%)

TOTAL

Kevin Rudd

55.9

51.6

53.7

Julia Gillard

44.1

48.4

46.3

As the tables above indicate, if we use the Newspoll polling data and combine it with the result of the parliamentary ballot, it would suggest that Rudd would still have been the successful candidate in the recent leadership contest with Gillard. However, the results suggest that in this scenario, the result would have been tighter with Rudd triumphing with either 51.8% or 53.7% of the overall vote, instead of the 55.9% he actually achieved.

These results would suggest that if Rudd were to have ‘re-run’ the recent ballot under his new proposed leadership model, he actually would have fared worst. This is contrary to much of the commentary regarding the new rules that suggest Rudd is proposing the rules only to make to boost his vote in any future leadership ballot.

26 February 2012 leadership contest

The next contested Labor leadership contest to examine was the first contested ballot between Rudd and Gillard in earlier 2012. Unlike in the most recent contest, the parliamentary ballot favoured Gillard:

Parliamentary Labor Party ballot

Candidate Caucus vote Percentage
Kevin Rudd

31

30.4%

Julia Gillard

71

69.6%

There were 103 caucus members and 102 of them casted a valid vote. Backbencher Michelle Rowland was not able to attend the caucus ballot on February 26, because she was on maternity leave. Presumably in Rudd’s model, the time allotted for parliamentary members to be able to vote would be extended from the currently very short time-frame so if this contest had been conducted under the Rudd model, Ms Rowland would have been able to cast a vote. She indicated publicly that if she had had a vote, she would have cast it for Gillard. For the purposes of this hypothetical, we should include Ms Rowland’s vote.

A Newspoll of Labor supporters held on the days before the ballot found the following:

Best candidate to lead the Labor Party amongst Labor supporters

Candidate Support
Kevin Rudd

56%

Julia Gillard

39%

Uncommitted

5%

(source: Newspoll 23-26 February 2012)

If we ignore the uncommitted respondents and apply the candidate preferences to a new ballot, the result would have been as follows:

Candidate support if ballot conducted under the new rules

Candidate

PLP (50%)

R&F (50%)

TOTAL

Kevin Rudd

30.1

58.9

44.5

Julia Gillard

69.9

41.1

55.5

Interestingly, Rudd’s popularity amongst Labor supporters in early 2012 was considerably stronger than it was when he actually won the leadership in 2013. Yet, even with a sizable preference amongst Labor supporters, Rudd would have been comfortably defeated in the 2012 leadership contest. Similarly to the 2013 contest, it would appear that the proposed new leadership model would not have produced a different result but only made the contest closer.

4 December 2006 leadership contest

The next most recent leadership contest was between Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd in late 2006. In this contest, Rudd teamed up with Julia Gillard to form a ‘Dream Team’ (a term in retrospect that has proven to have been misleading to say the least). With Gillard as his deputy, Rudd won the ballot 49 to 39:

Parliamentary Labor Party ballot

Candidate Caucus vote Percentage
Kevin Rudd

49

55.7%

Kim Beazley

39

44.3%

Polling held before the ballot provides some interesting obstacles in how to apply the information to a hypothetical ballot. A ‘best Labor leader’ poll (which included Gillard) found the following:

Best candidate to lead the Labor Party amongst Labor supporters

Candidate Support
Kevin Rudd

28%

Julia Gillard

26%

Kim Beazley

32%

Uncommitted

14%

(source: Newspoll 26-28 November 2006)

However, as already noted, Gillard did not run for the leadership and instead ran as Rudd’s deputy. Newspoll also did a poll amongst Labor supporters about who they believed was the ‘best Labor leadership team’ to lead the party:

Best leadership team to lead the Labor Party amongst Labor supporters

Candidate Support
Kevin Rudd / Julia Gillard

52%

Kim Beazley / Jenny Macklin

34%

Neither

3%

Uncommitted

11%

(source: Newspoll 26-28 November 2006)

This later poll question is a better guide as to how Labor party members might have voted in a rank-and-file ballot between Rudd and Beazley. Gillard running as deputy was a key component to Rudd being able to ascertain the necessary numbers in the parliamentary caucus, and there is nothing to suggest he would not have used Gillard’s position as his deputy candidate similarly in a rank-and-file member ballot to garner Gillard supporters.

If we were to use this Newspoll finding, a ballot would have looked as follows:

Candidate support if ballot conducted under the new rules

Candidate

PLP (50%)

R&F (50%)

TOTAL

Kevin Rudd

55.7

60.5

58.1

Kim Beazley

44.3

39.5

41.9

Again similar to the last two leadership ballots, it would appear that the result in 2006 would have been similar even if it had been conducted under the new rules. If anything, the 2006 result has produced even less delineation (a difference of only 3% between each candidate’s parliamentary support and their overall support under a hypothetical ballot conducted under the new rules).

2 December 2003 leadership contest

We have to go all the way back to the end of 2003 to find the next Labor leadership contest. The incumbent, Simon Crean, stepped down from the leadership and called a spill for his vacant position. The former leader Kim Beazley and the than Shadow Treasurer Mark Latham contested the ballot, with Latham triumphing 47-45:

Parliamentary Labor Party ballot

Candidate Caucus vote Percentage
Mark Latham

47

51.1%

Kim Beazley

45

48.9%

In relation to polling, Newspoll initially asked voters whom they would prefer between Latham, Beazley and Kevin Rudd:

Best candidate to lead the Labor Party amongst Labor supporters

Candidate Support
Mark Latham

24%

Kim Beazley

51%

Kevin Rudd

16%

Uncommitted

9%

(source: Newspoll 28-30 November 2003)

However, Newspoll also surveyed respondents and asked them who they would prefer between Latham and Beazley (excluding Rudd) which is much more useful for our purposes:

Best candidate to lead the Labor Party amongst Labor supporters (between Latham or Beazley)

Candidate Support
Mark Latham

31%

Kim Beazley

59%

Uncommitted

10%

(source: Newspoll 28-30 November 2003)

If we apply this poll result to a hypothetical ballot, it would look as follows:

Candidate support if ballot conducted under the new rules

Candidate

PLP (50%)

R&F (50%)

TOTAL

Mark Latham

51.1

34.4

42.8

Kim Beazley

48.9

65.6

57.2

Based on these findings, if the 2 December 2003 leadership contest had been conducted under Rudd’s new rules, the results would have remarkably different. Under a parliamentary ballot Latham had a narrow victory, whilst if it had been conducted under a model where 50% of the vote was weighed with the rank-and-file Beazley would have triumphed comfortably.

The changes in fortunate can be attributed to a variety of factors. Firstly, unlike in the other hypothetical ballots, the result between Latham and Beazley was very close; therefore if either received a distinct victory amongst the rank-and-file were likely to win the leadership under the hypothetical ballot.

The reasons why Beazley was considerably more popular amongst Labor supporters was probably due to the public profile he had attained during his previous stint as Labor leader between 1996 and 2001. In contrast, Latham had only become Shadow Treasurer six months earlier and had only been in the Shadow Cabinet for 15 months. In other words, Beazley’s popularity may be attributed to the fact more Labor supporters would have known who he was in contrast to Beazley.

If a leadership contest had been conducted under Rudd’s new rules, presumably Latham would have received more media attention and greater recognition from the rank-and-file as they contemplated whom they would vote for. Considering the ‘fresh face’ component of Latham’s candidature, this period of greater media recognition would have been pivotal to his leadership run. It is therefore impossible to predict with any level of certainty whether Latham would have succeeded in the 2 December 2003 leadership contest if it had been conducted under the new rules.

16 June 2003 leadership contest

The last leadership contest we will be examining was the spill called by the incumbent, Simon Crean, for 16 June 2003. The former leader Kim Beazley contested the ballot and Crean would overcome the challenge 58-34:

Parliamentary Labor Party ballot

Candidate Caucus vote Percentage
Simon Crean

58

63.0%

Kim Beazley

34

37.0%

The Newspoll findings amongst Labor supporters about who their preferred Labor leader presents several difficulties in applying to a hypothetical ballot.

Best candidate to lead the Labor Party amongst Labor supporters

Candidate Support
Kim Beazley

43%

Simon Crean

13%

Jenny Macklin

6%

Kevin Rudd

7%

Mark Latham

5%

Wayne Swan

1%

Lindsay Tanner

2%

Uncommitted

23%

(source: Newspoll 11-13 April 2003)

The first difficulty with applying this poll result to a hypothetical ballot is the high level of uncommitted respondents. This is a considerably higher figure than in the polls used in the previous hypotheticals, yet there is no other choice for us to exclude them from the hypothetical ballot. However, this is something worth noting, as it is likely that in a more-drawn leadership contest where candidates would be clearly identified for the voters, this number of uncommitted respondents would be expected to decline.

The second difficulty with applying this poll is the number of candidates identified who did not actually contest the ballot. There are 5 such candidates and they collectively account for 21% of the Labor supporters. Again, for the purpose of this hypothetical exercise, I believe we need to ignore these findings but I will argue later why I believe they would ultimately be irrelevant in the overall result.

If you exclude both the undecided respondents and those supporting candidates either than Beazley or Crean, the result produced is as follows:

Candidate support if ballot conducted under the new rules

Candidate

PLP (50%)

R&F (50%)

TOTAL

Simon Crean

63.0

23.2

43.1

Kim Beazley

37.0

76.8

56.9

Similar to the other 2003 leadership contest, Beazley’s dominance amongst Labor supporters would have seen a remarkable turnaround his in fortunate from the parliamentary ballot. Whilst his parliamentary colleagues trounced him, in this hypothetical ballot he would have coasted to victory off the rank-and-file vote.

It is worth at this point addressing the issue of the other 5 candidates listed in the Newspoll. None of the 5 other candidates listed in the poll contested the ballot but, with the exception of Latham who supported Crean, the remaining four were other openly supporting Beazley or one could surmise that they were quiet Beazley supporters. Therefore, one could argue that they would have endorsed Beazley in a hypothetical leadership ballot; therefore those respondents supporting these candidates would have been likely to support Beazley. This would have only further consolidated Beazley’s lead in the rank-and-file vote.

What could account for Beazley’s prominence in the rank-and-file vote over Crean? Again, as suggested in the previous ballot, it may have been the fact that Beazley was more well known due to his previous stint as leader. However, unlike Latham, Crean had been leader for 18 months and the deputy leader for the three years before that. He had also been a Member of the Ministry or the Shadow Ministry since his election to Parliament in 1990. Therefore, again unlike Latham, Crean would have been less likely to profit from an extended leadership ballot, as Labor supporters already knew him as the incumbent leader.

The only explanation that is left to explain Crean’s unpopularity amongst Labor supporters would simply be the fact that he was an unpopular leader. To adopt Occam’s Razor, sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one. 

Conclusion 

From ‘re-running’ the previous 5 Labor leadership contests using the new rules proposed by Rudd, I feel based on the evidence provided I can make the following three conclusions:

(1)   The new model would not necessarily boost Kevin Rudd’s votes in any future leadership ballot. Although he has been found to be more popular than Julia Gillard generally, his popularity amongst Labor supporters has been considerably less decisive (as shown by the 2012 and 2012 hypothetical ballots).

(2)  The new model would appear to favour incumbents or past leaders (i.e. those with brand recognition) as demonstrated by most of the hypothetical ballots. However, it is worth noting that, in a leadership ballot conducted under these new rules, more public attention would undoubtedly be given to new challengers, therefore the current advantage that incumbents or past leader may have during the ballots may be negated by the new rules. However, it is impossible to ascertain this with any certainty until a leadership election is held under the new rules.

(3)  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the new model would not have produced different results to those produced by the parliamentary ballots if used in the last 5 leadership contests.  The 2013, 2013 and 2006 hypothetical ballots demonstrate that the result would not have been significantly different under the new rules. The December 2003 hypothetical ballot cannot be used in making this assessment as the absence of any ‘lead-in’ period for Mark Latham to build a public profile with the ‘rank-and-file’ – which would have likely been in place with a contest under the new rules –  makes it impossible to be able to predict how this contest would have actually eventuated. Only the June 2003 hypothetical ballot would have produced a result distinctly different from what occurred at the time. Considering Simon Crean’s unpopularity and his place in history as the only Labor leader to have never faced an election since the Second World War, perhaps it was only the ‘quirk’ of the parliamentary ballot that kept him in the job for six months longer.

These conclusions are speculative since I am relying only on Newspoll findings of Labor supporters, but I do believe they provide some clarity about the common misconceptions people may have the proposed new rules for the election of a Labor parliamentary leader.

 

Sheldon Oski has an Arts degree in politics from Monash University and is currently studying a Juris Doctor at the University of Melbourne.

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