Popularity vs. collegiality

As I type this item, we are a few hours from the caucus meeting of the Australian Labor Party, where a decision will be made on the party leader. Current leader and PM, Julia Gillard, is being challenged by former PM (and until a few days ago, Foreign Minister), Kevin Rudd. Today’s caucus vote is a good case study in parliamentary vs. presidential democracy.

In Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers, David Samuels and I make the point that Prime Ministers in parliamentary democracies are agents of their parties, whereas parties in presidential systems must select executive candidates who can succeed as agents of the electorate. We show that this fundamental institutional distinction has consequences for the types of leaders who are chosen under each system. We suggest this is because the qualities that make a potential executive leader a “good agent” of the party might be only loosely correlated with the qualities that make a potential leader sufficiently popular to win a separate election. Australia today is apparently going to give us an excellent case study in exactly why these leadership-selection distinctions matter.

It now appears, based on various news accounts, that Gillard has outmaneuvered Rudd and will survive the challenge, notwithstanding evidence that Rudd is favored by the voters.

If public opinion polls are to be believed, Rudd is vastly more popular than Gillard. For example a Newspoll survey, reported in The Age, has Rudd preferred over Gillard, 53% to 28%. Polls also suggest that he would run a closer contest, or even beat, opposition leader Tony Abbot, while Gillard would lose badly.

However, Australia does not select its executives by popular vote. The only voters who matter under the rules the Labor Party uses are the members of its parliamentary caucus. The Sydney Morning Herald estimates that the 69 of the 103 caucus members back Gillard and only 29 Rudd.

That’s 67% Gillard in the caucus (and it may end up much higher), 53% Rudd in the public.

Rudd’s wife says the challenger’s campaign is “people-led“. Right; that’s the problem! Rudd and his backers are encouraging voters to contact their Labor MPs on Rudd’s behalf. I doubt many MPs will be swayed. This is their decision.

If the challenger is more popular with the public than the incumbent, one might expect that it would be the marginal seat-holders who would most tend to be in favor of the challenger. After all, they are the Labor MPs who are most vulnerable, and therefore would gain most from whatever additional votes a changed leader might bring to their party. Yet marginal members are actually more likely to favor the incumbent party leader and PM, Gillard, over Rudd. According to a count by the Sydney Morning Herald, only 5 of Labor’s 20 most marginal MPs favor Rudd. They are prepared to sacrifice their seats for the current leader. As the Herald concludes:

Another MP said marginal seat holders tended to support the leader because they got the most attention “Name me a leader who doesn’t listen to marginal seats and I’ll show you a leader who won’t win,” the MP said.

Evidently she listens to the selectorate that matters most to a PM’s career, an area in which Rudd has an ongoing failing.

If Rudd really is more popular, by such a wide margin as polls suggest, one might expect MPs and Senators to be persuaded. Of the many tasks a party leader has to perform, one of the most important is to be able to lead the party to electoral success. Quite likely, however, the caucus members simply do not believe the leader makes this much difference. There is little objective reason to think it would matter as much as the polling says, for when an election actually comes, voters in a parliamentary system will select their legislators based overwhelmingly on the party record, and not on images of the leader. Besides, before the election there is a government and a party to manage, and for Labor caucus members, they have been there, done that with Rudd.

From the point of view of the caucus, it can’t be a good thing to contemplate entering a second consecutive election with a PM who came to power due to an inter-electoral leadership “spill”. Divided parties rarely prosper–it is almost a political-science truism. Better to get this behind them–if they can–and get on with governing and repairing a record on which to run come the next election.

25 thoughts on “Popularity vs. collegiality

  1. Excellent analysis, MSS, and quite in tune with the vibe I’m getting here in Qld/NSW.
    One addendum/query: since ALP Senators don’t have marginal seats as such (even those who just squeaked in from third – or in some cases second – place on their party ticket), I’m wondering what dynamics they respond to?

    My guess is that it’s probably a particularly powerful union in their home State, since Labor Senate tickets are usually “drawn up” by an STV vote of State party conference delegates (who in turn are 40% affiliated union appointees), with order determined by who’s “first past the quota” (which is too random to use in popular elections, but tends to reflect factional strengths accurately for intra-party preselection ballots).

    C/f how Linda Kirk was in effect “recalled” as a SA Labor Senator after she annoyed her sponsors in the Shoppies union by voting for embryonic stem cell research.


  2. Thanks, Tom. I was wondering about Senators myself. My expectation would be similar to yours: they should be more responsive to intra-party constituent groups. That is why I did not mention Senators in my reference to the incentives of “marginals”.


  3. A US analogy might be to convention delegates, depending on whether they’re elected by direct vote in a primary or appointed by district-, county- or State-level conventions. And throw in whether they’re pledged or not, and if so, for how many ballots…


  4. The numbers were later corrected to 71/31. A measure of the silliness of the Gillard campaign is that the earlier figure was leaked from inside the caucus meeting and had a run for some hours until the true figures were released. The Gillard camp had more or less fixed 30 votes as the minimum to ground a further challenge. It would seem someone leaked incorrect figures to make it appear that Rudd did not reach the magic figure.


  5. Canberra is awash in quite strong rumours of a second challenge by a third candidate later in the year. The claim is that many Gillard votes came from unhappy MHRs and senators who could not support Rudd.

    In 1991 Keating challenged twice. After being crushed in his first challenge he made the customary promise not to challenge again, everyone made the customary avowals of unity, and Keating went on to challenge successfully 6 months later. He also won the subsequent general election.


  6. Gillard went nuclear in the leadership challenge. Gillard proxies carpet-bombed Rudd as a ‘traitor’, ‘psychopath’, etc etc. At times comments from the Gillard camp read like something out of a show trial in the 30s. Gillard allies announced they would not serve in a Rudd cabinet. Rudd was assigned exclusive blame for Gillard’s poor standing in the electorate. Think Cheney on steroids.

    In the short term she retained the leadership. In the long term she probably managed to gain herself even greater disdain from the electorate. Gillard is widely perceived, correctly in my view, as being all tactics and no programme.

    Despite all the passionate cries of loyalty I cannot imagine her lasting out the year as prime minsiter.

    At the same time Rudd was a somewhat erratic prime minister who drove his ministers and bureaucrats mad. Everyone agrees that he was great at ideas and policy. Decisions took forever. Implementation was shaky. Everything was centralised in an inner cabinet of 4.

    While I would not yet completely write off Rudd’s chances of doing a Keating, I also think a third candidate might give the caucus a more palatable option than either of the current candidates. That would depend on Gillard continuing to turn in dismal poll ratings.


  7. Arbib was one of the principal architects of the Rudd deposition and a leader of the NSW Right, the dominant faction federally and in NSW. Rudd repeatedly denounced the faction leaders as ‘faceless men’ and faction influence became the dominant theme, from Rudd’s side, in the leadership contest.

    No-one, including Arbib, has really offered a coherent explanation. There are some suggestions that Gillard has made Arbib a scapegoat.

    The replacement senator will formally be elected by a joint sitting of the NSW parliament, but the parliament is limited, under a 1977 constitutional amendment, to members of the vacating senator’s party. If you cease to be a member of that party between election and swearing in you lose the seat. So parties only nominate one candidate and could in theory expel a rogue member who accepted election against the party’s wishes.

    The amendment does leave the remote possibility that a state parliament could refuse to fill a vacancy, but I doubt that is likely. It was designed to address the strange career of Senator Field in 1975.


  8. The thot plickens. It is now being reported that Gillard offered the foreign ministry to Bob Carr, a former premier of NSW, several days before Arbib’s ‘spontaneous’ resignation. Carr would need a Senate seat (no-one is going to risk a House by-election under any circumstances) to accept the offer.


  9. Bob Carr, who was a very successful premier of NSW, has accepted the foreign ministry.The constitution gives him 3 months to gain a seat in either house. He is expected to be elected to the Senate by the NSW parliament in a few days.

    Carr was our longest-serving premier in a single term, although Sir Henry Parkes was premier for longer over a series of broken terms in the nineteenth century. This is somewhat of a coup for Gillard.

    There is a remote possibility that NSW will refuse the fill the vacancy but it is not very likely.

    On the other hand a demoted minister who voted for Rudd, Robert McLelland, has announced he is considering his future in politics. A by-election would not be a coup for Gillard and would almost certainly lead to an early election and a landslide defeat.


  10. Weirdly enough I am now game torpedcit who the third candidate will be. I agree with Mungo McCallum:

    It could even be too big; if Gillard fails to recover in the polls, it will not be long until plots are being hatched to move Carr in as the long-elusive third man, a leadership candidate on to whom the anyone-but-Rudd brigade can latch if their current leader appears ultimately unsalvageable.

    Carr has the best third candidate credentials of all. He has both won general elections and governed successfully, something that neither Rudd nor Gillard can actually claim. Ditto the various other contenders already in the caucus.


  11. Hi all,

    I’m an undergrad student at Univ. of QLD writing an essay, partly in response to this event and even this insightful discussion in particular, about what a theoretical Australian presidential system might look like and might change. If there is anybody with any thoughts, ideas, criticisms, or references to articles I would great appreciate it.



  12. I suppose I should mention that my thoughts included:

    1) alleviate the perceived unfairness of having the party leader as the choice of the party elite rather than the electorate

    2) A mediator who can help to bridge the gaps between the House and the Senate that are a major source of policy gridlock

    3) An extrinsic executive that might be more effective in reaching across the aisle than an intrinsic one (the essay prompt stems from Greg Rudd’s Dec 2011 editorial in the Australian: Democracy Can be Done Better).

    4) Might lead to the strengthening of House committees that have the power to draft legislation whereby both Labor and Coalition can contribute.

    5) Gives the electorate a clearer ability to choose divided or unitary gov’t (e.g. USA or France)


  13. Hi Mike,

    Sounds like UQ haven’t rotated essay topics much since my day…

    1. George Winterton’s “Monarchy to Republic” and Geoffrey Dutton (ed) “Republican Australia” canvass this thoroughly (albeit a bit dated now – 1986 and 1977 – the latter in particular tends to view the 1975 Dismissal as the shape of things to come, rather than the blip it has turned out to be in hindsight)

    2. Maybe look at Campbell Newman’s first term as Brisbane Lord Mayor, when Labor still had a council majority? That might give some idea how a presidential executive (assuming this is why your topic doesn’t just say “republic” generally) might work with the Australian party system, which is a lot more disciplined than the USA’s and a lot more two-sided than Brazil’s, France’s, etc.


  14. Really, the only executive president I can imagine in Australia is one like South Africa’s who is elected and removed by and from the lower house.


  15. Tom: I’ll definitely check out those books and I appreciate the idea on thinking about Newman as Brisbane LM. Never would have thought to look that far below federal government level.

    Alan: I given thought to looking at South Africa, but its just ANC-dominant that I feel like it’s hard to compare. Might as well give it a shot though.

    Thanks again to you both.


  16. You’re welcome, Mike. Brisbane City Council has a larger population and budget than the two smallest State governments, and of course the ACT and NT.


  17. More for Mike…

    1. Richard Walsh, publisher, mid-1992, called for an elected executive President and a Lower House based on proxy voting – ie, any candidate supported by (IIRC) 20,000 voters would be seated and have as many votes as s/he had supporters: they could withdraw support from their MP in mid-term. I remember this was an op-ed in the Courier-Mail or the Australian but it might have been abridged from a longer piece somewhere else- say, the now-defunct Independent Monthly or the Bulletin.

    2. Ted Mack, independent NSW and federal MP and former Mayor of North Sydney, wanted a directly elected executive president and a parliament elected by PR. Malcolm Turnbull (Liberal MP, leading advocate of a ceremonial president elected by Parliament – think an Australian Mitt Romney but less bland*) derided this model as “a US-style executive facing an Italian-style legislature”. Bazinga, Malcolm, and I’m sure that fostering reflexive conservatism and/or Podsnapian xenophobia on constitutional questions would never bite the Aust Republican Movement on the backside, ever…

    * Matching US and Aust politicians is fun. Eg, Santorum = Abbott with a dash of Peter Dutton. Rick Perry = Bob Katter. Palin and Bachmann = Jackie Kelly and Danna Vale,. And so forth. Mike: Don’t include this in your assignment or the “other” PR will get out the red biro…)


  18. Mike, Alan noted here http://tinyurl.com/85wrqcs that “William Bowe http://tinyurl.com/6osx565 can now be added to Tom’s list of those calling for a directly elected executive.”

    Two other sources (again, a bit dated now – both from 1980):

    * Colin Howard’s “The Constitution, Power and Politics”

    * Elaine Thompson’s “The ‘Washminster’ Mutation” in Responsible Government in Australia, ed Pat Weller and Dean Jaensch (plus other chapters in that volume, esp Billy Snedden’s and Patrick O’Brien’s)


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