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.